Merrilee Robson, author of Whack-A-Mole, has previously published short fiction in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and Mystery Magazine among others. Merrilee is a former vice president of Sisters in Crime – Canada West and a former director of Crime Writers of Canada.
The summer breeze, filled with frying onions and the warm sugar of cotton candy, makes me want to follow that smell like a dog hunting for treats.
Mom tells me I can’t possibly smell the fair from here. But my mouth is watering.
I can certainly hear it. Old rock and roll songs, the music sounding faint and tinny at first. But it’s booming where Mom pulls the car up near the entrance. I can see the blinking lights from the rides reflecting on Luke’s glasses when he and Ethan get out of the back seat. I feel like I’m lighting up like the Ferris wheel, excitement running through me like electricity, blinking in time to the beat.
Mom is fussing, as usual. “Matthew, have you got your phone? Did you remember your money?”
Duh! Like I would go anywhere without my phone. And the money Dad gave me, as well as what I saved from my allowance, is zipped safely in my wallet, in the pocket of my jeans.
I touch my pocket just to make sure. Sometimes I pick up Mom’s worrying.
Duh! Like I would go anywhere without my phone.
Ethan and Luke thank Mom for the ride and I turn again to look at the lights of the fair, hoping she won’t ask for a goodbye kiss in front of my friends.
“Now, you boys remember to stay together. I’ll be back at ten but call me if you want to come home sooner.”
Mom’s worried look is replaced for a moment with a smile. “Have fun now.”
We’ll stick together. That’s the whole point – being able to have fun at the fair with my friends.
I know Mom is against it. I’ve always gone in the daytime with her and Dad.
But Dad said, “Well the boys are almost teenagers. Of course, they don’t want to go with their parents. And besides, it’s just a little local fair. They won’t get into any trouble. They’ll know most of the people there.”
But that isn’t true. That’s what’s so exciting about the fair. Ours is a small town and nothing much happens here. But, in the summer, it’s different.
Luke is shifting anxiously from foot to foot as we line up to get our ride passes. He frowns at the sign beside the ticket booth, with the line marking how tall you have to be to go on the big rides.
“You’ll be fine,” I tell him. “I was big enough last year and you’re almost as tall as I am now.”
Luke’s face turns as red as his hair. “Oh, yeah, I know that. I was just thinking about how many times I want to go on the roller coaster.”
Ethan nudges me, staring at a group of girls in crop tops and shorts in the next lineup.
“They’re not from our school, are they?” he asks. ‘I don’t think I’ve seen them before.”
That’s what so great about summer. This town explodes in size. People crowd into the cottages along the beach. Bigger boys do crazy dives off the swimming raft. Groups of girls walk along the sand in tiny bikinis, their skin shining with sunscreen, laughing and pretending they’re not looking at the guys.
And, on the last week of the summer, there’s the fair.
I catch the eye of one the girls in the next line and smile. She smiles back and I think….
And then someone taps me on the shoulder and I forget every other girl in the world.
Mom likes to tell people about the time when I was eight and I stared at the wall, sighed, and said, “All I can see is Kayleigh’s face.”
So, yeah, I’ve been in love with Kayleigh since I was a kid.
Luke and Ethan’s mouths are hanging open and I tap my chin to make sure mine isn’t too.
Kayleigh is the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.
Hair the colour of caramel, curling half-way down her back. The bluest, most beautiful eyes. A very short yellow dress, printed with flowers the colour of her eyes.
And five years older than me.
“Hi Matthew,” she says, smiling. Her lips are pink and shiny with what I guess is lip gloss but she looks like she’s been eating a pink popsicle.
She smiles at Ethan and Luke too. “I’m Kayleigh,” she says. “Matthew and I are in the same youth group at church.”
See, that’s why Kayleigh is so great. She could have said she used to be my babysitter but she makes it seem like we’re friends.
Which we sort of are. I mean, she isn’t like other babysitters I’ve had, who spent all their time talking to their friends on their phones or watching some sappy show on TV. Kayleigh always made her time at our house fun for me. We’d play ball hockey on the patio, or make popcorn and binge watch funny movies.
So when Mom and Dad decided I didn’t need a babysitter any more, I should have been happy. But I really missed Kayleigh.
That’s why I joined the youth group. It sometimes sucks but when Kayleigh’s there she thinks up fun things to do.
I’m about to ask her if she wants to go on the rollercoaster with us, when I hear the girls in the next line giggling. I glance over and see they aren’t looking at us any more.
A long arm snakes around Kayleigh’s tanned shoulder.
I guess, you could say Jimmy is kind of the male equivalent of Kayleigh. He’s tall, and he has wavy hair that’s almost but not quite blond. His eyes aren’t as pretty as Kayleigh’s but they are blue. And, he has broad shoulders and the kind of muscles Ethan and I are trying to get, lifting the weights his dad has in the basement.
He’s also the reason the youth group sometimes sucks.
In church, Jimmy looks like a saint or an angel in one of those religious paintings. Staring at the alter or with his eyes lifted to the ceiling, with a small smile on his face. Singing really loud, as if he thinks God is listening just to him. He’s always willing to help out, taking the collection in church and volunteering with the youth group.
But where Kayleigh makes youth group fun, telling us stories and then taking us to the park to shoot some hoops, I don’t like it when Jimmy’s there.
He makes us read the Bible out loud and then makes fun of the kids who don’t pronounce the words right. He lectures us about chastity and saving ourselves for marriage and made one girl leave because he said her skirt was too short and she was “immodest.”
But he’s always much nicer when Kayleigh’s there, smiling at her and being friendly to everyone, even though her skirts are just as short as the other girl’s.
I think he’s going to ignore me. What he does is worse.
“Hi Mattie,” he says. “Aren’t your parents with you? You’re a bit young to be out on your own. Maybe I should mention this to the pastor. He might want to talk to them about being more responsible parents. Letting your children roam around town alone hardly sets a good example.”
Kayleigh looks like she’s going to say something, maybe defend Mom and Dad. But he interrupts her, handing her a plastic cup filled with some kind of red liquid. “I got you a slushie.” Then he pulls something from behind his back. “And I won this at the Whack-a-Mole. It’s the prize for the best score. I thought you might like it.”
Kayleigh grins and takes the giant green panther, tucking it under one arm. She takes a sip of her drink, staining her lips an even brighter pink.
Jimmy tightens his arm and pulls Kayleigh closer. “Come on; let’s go on the Ferris wheel. See you, Mattie. And tell your parents what I said about improving their parenting. I’m sure they want to keep you on the straight and narrow.”
I want to punch him. Sure, I sometimes complain about my parents but for being too strict. They’re actually pretty good parents.
“Who’s that guy?” Ethan asks.
“He’s from church.” I sigh. “He sometimes runs the youth group.”
“He’s mean,” Luke says. “Remember when I went that one time and he made us run races all afternoon even though it was really hot and that one kid threw up. Mom said that was dangerous on such a hot day and I shouldn’t go back.”
And Luke had been wearing flip flops but Jimmy said he had to run anyway but then Luke tripped and fell and tore his shorts. Jimmy had laughed so hard at that, pointing out to everyone where Luke’s underwear was showing through the rip in his shorts.
Luke cried then and that made Jimmy laugh even harder. I think that’s actually why Luke’s mom said he shouldn’t go back, not because of the kid that got sick, but because Luke was so upset. But Luke is staring at me like he’s trying to burn a message into my head not to tell Ethan about the underwear and the crying.
“So is she dating that guy?” Ethan asks.
“I guess.” I watch them walk away. If I was on a date with Kayleigh, I’d want to be with her all the time, not wandering off to play Whack-a-Mole. And I would offer to carry that stupid plush toy for her. And did he even ask if she wanted that drink? I thought her face wrinkled up a bit when she took a sip. If I was with Kayleigh, I’d do everything I could to make her happy.
I take a deep breath. “He’s a real asshole.” I don’t usually use that word. Maybe my parents are too lax. Maybe it’s just that Jimmy is an asshole.
Luke wants to go on the roller coaster so we head that way. Then we see Ethan’s older brother, calling for people to try out the Whack-a-Mole game.
“Hey guys,” he says. “Want to give it a try?”
Luke is laughing his head off as the fuzzy, toy moles pop up.
“Wow! You work here?” he says. “This must be the best job in the world!”
We hand our money over and try pounding the moles before they jump back into their holes.
“Not bad,” Ethan’s brother says, letting us choose which of the smaller prizes we want. “I had a guy here just now who didn’t hit a single one, even though he tried three times. He eventually asked if he could buy one of the big prizes. We’re not supposed to do that but I felt sorry for him. I’ve never seen anyone play that bad.”
I look up at the rows of big plus toys – elephants, snakes, and bears all in bright colours. “Was it a green panther? I asked.
“Yeah, a cat. Only one we had.”
Luke was still talking about the roller coaster but the smell of warm oil and cinnamon pulls us over to the food stands and we each buy a bag of mini doughnuts. Mom always makes me wait to eat until after I’ve been on the rides. But what fun is that? Then you end up not being able to try everything because you get too full eating all at once. It’s way better to just try things out as you go.
Luke screams all the way through the roller coaster ride, not just when we came rushing down but even when we were chugging up the slope.
I’m laughing but, when we reach the top, I look around for Kayleigh’s bright yellow dress, turning my head from side to side, even as we’re rushing down.
As soon as we finish, Luke wants to go again.
But I don’t really enjoy it. I keep looking out around the fairgrounds, looking for Kayleigh.
Finally, from the top of the roller coaster’s biggest hill, I catch a glimpse of her yellow dress, over by the Ferris wheel. I squint, trying to see if she looks like she’s having fun.
And then we start the plunge and I lose sight of her.
Luke says he want to try the Tilt-a-Whirl next.
“Let’s go on the Ferris Wheel,” I say.
“That’s for old people,” Ethan complains. “Or babies.”
“It’s slow but it goes really high. And they tell you not to but you can rock the chairs and that’s scary.”
But, when we get to the Ferris wheel, there’s no sign of Kayleigh. I look up but I can’t see her yellow dress in any of the seats. And Ethan is still complaining about the Ferris wheel, saying it’s for babies and wimps.
So we start back towards the Tilt-a-Whirl but I’m stopped by the frying onions I smelled earlier.
About half-way through the ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl, I start to feel that hot dog, along with the onions, relish and mustard, whirling around in my tummy in time to the music on the ride.
I start to understand why Mom always wants me to go on the rides before I eat.
I’m not even looking for Kayleigh any more. I’m just concentrating on not doing what Ethan’s brother say the people who work on the rides call a “protein spill.”
“Let’s go on the Pirate Ship next!” Ethan yells over the music of the ride. And I feel my stomach twirl again. I swallow hard.
When the ride finally stops, I think my face must be dead white but the guys don’t seem to notice.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” I mutter. “You guys go on ahead. I’ll meet you over by the Pirate Ship.”
I pray that neither of them says they want to go too. But they head off toward the swinging Pirate Ship. Just the thought of it makes the doughnuts, hot dog and everything else in my stomach erupt and I take off running for the bathroom.
Of course there’s a line-up, a long line of dads and little kids. I see a guy I know, a friend of Ethan’s brother, and I don’t want him to see me puke.
I run right past the washrooms, out the gates and into the park. I know the stamp on my hand will get me back in but I’m not thinking about that.
I race to the nearest bush, crouch down in the shadow of the branches and proceed to lose the hotdog and every mini doughnut in my stomach.
I stay there for a while, shivering a little.
Then I realize how bad it smells and I stagger down to the lake. I fill my cupped hands with water to rinse out my mouth. The cool water feels so good that I splash some on my face and around my neck.
I’m thinking I should find a way to carry some water up to the bush and try to wash away some of the smelly mess I made.
That’s when I see them.
Kayleigh and Jimmy.
They don’t notice me and I’m glad. He’s holding her even more tightly against him as they wander off down the beach.
The thought of Jimmy making out with Kayleigh makes me want to vomit again. I clench my hands into fists for a moment, digging my fingernails into my palms until the pain brings tears to my eyes.
I start to turn away, back to the lights of the fair, heading back to meet Luke and Ethan.
And then I notice Kayleigh stumble.
I wonder if she’s sick from going on the rides too. That red drink Jimmy had given her looked kind of sickening and I can just imagine it swirling around in her tummy.
The very thought makes me want to throw up again.
I start to follow them.
I’m pretty sure Jimmy won’t help if Kayleigh is sick. He won’t bring her cool water from the lake to wash her face and rinse out her mouth.
He’ll probably just laugh and make fun of her.
Then I see Kayleigh trip again. And one of the blue sandals that match the flowers on her dress falls off and she doesn’t even stop to put it back on.
Jimmy is practically dragging her down the beach.
We’re close to edge of the park now, heading towards the big houses that line this part of the lake. It’s darker here, except for the occasional security light in one of the yards. But I’m sticking close to the darkness of the lake, away from any of the lights.
I stop to pick up that blue sandal she lost. She’ll need it when she wants to go back to the fair.
I want to be there to help Kayleigh if she’s going to be sick.
But I remember how mad Ethan’s brother was when we were spying on him and his girlfriend in the basement TV room. He was pretty scary. And Jimmy’s mean even when he’s not mad.
Besides, I don’t want to watch Jimmy kissing Kayleigh.
And then I remember Ethan’s brother talking about stuff guys can put in drinks, to make girls pass out. He said only assholes would do that.
But then Jimmy is an asshole.
And I remember that red drink.
So I try to hurry, getting closer to them without making any noise.
A duck at the edge of the lake quacks, complaining about being disturbed. I freeze but Jimmy doesn’t seem to notice the noise.
He’s carrying Kayleigh now and she’s limp, like she’s asleep.
He takes her to the shade of some willow trees and drops her on the sand. It must hurt to be dropped like that. Kayleigh makes a little whimper but doesn’t move. He pulls the drooping branches around them, so they’re hidden.
I creep closer. I can just make out her other sandal, lying in the sand just outside the deeper darkness beneath the trees.
The branches of the weeping willow rustle in a slight breeze and I think that might be a nice place to be with a girl, sheltered in among the branches on a warm night.
But not one who isn’t moving.
The wind makes it easier for me to move the branches aside and slowly edge under the tree without being noticed.
It takes a minute for my eyes to adjust to the deeper darkness.
And then I see them. Jimmy with his fly undone, his, um. boner bulging, lifting the skirt of Kayleigh’s yellow dress. And her lying there like the princess in the Sleeping Beauty movie I saw when I was a kid.
I know Jimmy’s twice my size but I clench my hands into fists, getting ready to jump on him.
My hand brushes the pocket with my phone and I have a better idea.
I tap my phone and then hold my finger down as the flash blinks over and over for a burst of photos.
Then I take off running, screaming for help.
Jimmy’s legs are so much longer than mine and I expect any minute that he’ll grab me and hit me.
I shoot a look over my shoulder and see his unzipped shorts have slipped down to his ankles and he’s fallen flat on his face in the sand.
I laugh the way Luke will when I tell him.
But then I see Jimmy getting up and I run faster.
I’m crying and screaming by the time I race back into the fair grounds.
The staff on the gate don’t even try to stop me as I race into the light.
Jimmy may be bigger than me and have bigger muscles.
But I’ve still got enough of that little kid superpower that has every mom within hearing turning to me to see why I’m crying, and every dad looking around for a security guard or first aid attendant.
“Help!” I scream. “Help her! He’s going to hurt her!”
I tell the guy in the security T-shirt where Kayleigh is.
He calls a police officer on his radio.
I start to go with them but he tells me to stay and they both take off running down the beach.
I hope they’ll be in time to help her.
The dad who called security says the police officer might want to talk to me and I should just wait with his family for a moment.
He’s nice and asks if I want a lemonade or something.
The thought makes me want to throw up again but I remember to thank him as I shake my head.
The mom, his wife, leads me over to a bench, sits me down and puts her arm around me. Her two little kids are staring at me with open mouths and I start to feel embarrassed. ‘cause everyone else is looking at me too.
She asks if I want her to call my mom.
“I’ll call her,” I say.
I pick up my phone. There are a bunch of texts from Luke and Ethan, asking where I am.
I’ll text them back in a minute.
Right now, I really want to talk to my mom.
But first I look at the pictures.
There’s maybe a dozen of them, most of them blurry.
But the first one clearly shows Jimmy with his fly undone, his boner showing, lifting the skirt of Kayleigh’s dress.
I know her blue shoe is there in the shadow of the tree but you can’t see it.
And you can’t really tell what colour her dress is.
There’s really nothing you can see that would tell you it’s Kayleigh in the picture.
All you can see are her legs. But it’s clear what Jimmy’s doing.
And it’s sure not the chastity he’s always talking about to the youth group.
There’s another shot of him on his feet, his shorts down around his knees, his face clear in the light of the flash, snarling with anger.
I click on both pictures and send them to the pastor of our church.
He’ll know what to do. I have a feeling youth group is going to be better from now on.
Then I call Mom.
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