Maelin flew spectacularly through the air, landing in the water. Allen laughed. She glared at him.
“That’s not funny.” She growled as she struggled free of the clinging mud. He had tripped her. She knew it. Just like she knew he was the one who kept hiding her stuffed giraffe. Sleeping with a stuffed animal did not make her a baby.
Allen laughed again. “Ah, don’t be a pansy. I was just joking.”
Maelin gulped down her tears as she stomped toward drier ground. Allen kept laughing, following her as if he meant to do it again. Maelin shoved him. He landed in the lake muck with a splat. Maelin ran toward the woods. She did not want to see anybody. Not Tanner, or Summer, and especially not Allen.
Only after she had to stop running in order to catch her breath did she realize that she was out-of-bounds. Nuts. Her parents would ground her for eternity and beyond. That would be the icing on the already crumbly mess of summer.
She kicked a pine cone. It bounced off a tree and flew back toward her. She ducked and followed the pine cone’s trajectory, her adrenalin slowing.
“Stupid Allen. It’s your fault that I’m out of bounds.” She kicked the pine cone again. “Stupid camp. I wish we’d never come.” She followed the pine cone and kicked it a third time. It flew through a tunnel of trees, missing all of them, and landing beyond her sight.
Impressed, she chased after it. The trees opened onto a small clearing, overgrown with bushes, a trailing vine climbing the remnants of a rotting fence. The fence cozied up to an ancient pile of junk, a gorilla’s face haughtily laughing at her. Maelin hesitantly stepped closer. The gorilla didn’t move.
She took another step and released her held breath. It was a painted life-sized sculpture. She ran a finger over his face. There was no dust, though it felt as if she were the first visitor in ages. There should be dust. The climbing vine had wrapped around most of his body. Maelin tugged at the greenery. It held fast to its prize.
She flipped open her pocket knife and carefully cut the vine away from the gorilla. The plant reluctantly released its prize. The gorilla was whole, the paint slightly faded without any chips or damage. A pole pierced the gorilla through the middle of his back, pinning him to a plank of painted wood beneath his feet and a moving metal arm above his head. The tarnished metal glinted as she moved, the pole shivering slightly.
Curious, Maelin took a step back, tugging at the vine as she walked.
Unbelievably, the rest of the plant slid off of their treasure as if every grasping tendril had been cut, revealing an ancient carousel with six animals poised as if they were ready to run or fly. The gorilla seemed, if anything, haughtier in his observation of the young girl. Maelin walked past him, running her hands over the ostrich, polar bear, badger, bullfrog, and dragon. It was the oddest group of animals she had ever seen on a carousel.
She backed away from the carousel. The integrity seemed intact. The fence stopped her backward progression with a shower of wood dust.
Beyond the carousel she could see the remains of other fair attractions. She ventured near a crumbling booth. One figure remained semi-upright at the back of the wooden structure, waiting for a ball or pellet gun to knock it over. The wood crumbled where she touched it, the paint worn away by years of moisture and abuse.
The carousel creaked. Maelin jumped, but no one was there. She brushed the dust from her hands and returned to the whole carousel.
Had someone abandoned the carousel more recently than the rest of the fair attractions? Was that how it looked so good compared to the rest of the fair cemetery?
She carefully stepped onto the platform. The wood groaned, but held. For a moment, she smelled popcorn and cotton candy. She took a second whiff, but it had passed. A light flickered in the corner of her vision. She turned, but the bulbs decorating the inner pole of the carousel were mostly broken. She touched them, her fingers coming away clean, again. Odd.
She walked the circumference of the carousel platform and stopped in front of the gorilla. He hadn’t shifted, or moved. That would be impossible, but his expression seemed content somehow. She ran her fingers across his back. Each hair felt as if it had been individually carved and intricately painted. Several strands switched color midway through, as real hair often did.
Maelin peeked around the small clearing. She was the only person there, not even the birds dared peep as she climbed onto the gorilla. Eyes closed, the fair grew around her.
Music and laughter twined through the air. Children ran around adults, sticky and giggly. Women wore elegant dresses, their hair coiffed, and makeup perfect. Men tugged at suit jackets, offering their arms to the women around them as they waited in lines for the rides and booths. A breeze lifted Maelin’s hair, almost as if the carousel were slowly shivering to life.
She opened her eyes to bones and mud. “Thanks for the ride.” She patted the gorilla on the shoulder. “It was nice.”
Maelin walked a little deeper into the dead fairgrounds. Mud sucked at her shoes and her clothes crinkled, reminding her of her unfortunate lake-bath.
“Dagnammit!” She exclaimed as she looked up and realized the sky had turned pink. She did not want to be grounded for the rest of this miserable trip. Maelin raced back to camp, the knife slipping from her pocket to land in a patch of overgrown grass on the outer edge of the clearing.
Maelin sat on the log near the fire. Summer passed her a bag of marshmallows and a stick. “You missed dinner,” Summer whispered. “Where were you?”
Maelin popped three marshmallows onto the pokey end of the stick. “Nowhere.” She lied.
“Huh,” Summer grunted while she stabbed her marshmallow into the fire. “Allen apparently went swimming today.” Summer turned the marshmallow, burning the underside as thoroughly as the top. “By himself.” She turned the stick a third time, then grinned as the marshmallow caught fire. “In his clothes.”
Maelin ignored Summer, holding her own marshmallows just close enough to the flame to grow warm. She preferred them crisp and brown, not crisp and black.
“Tanner said you had gone to the lake with Allen, and that he was going to meet up with both of you there,” Summer did not give up. “But when Tanner got there, you’d already gone and Allen was covered in muck.” Summer plucked the crusted black shell from her marshmallow, ate it with a flourish, and stuck the remaining gooey center back into the flame until it bubbled and crusted.
“He didn’t bother you, did he?”
“Nah,” Maelin finally responded. “He was just being a spaz.”
Bracken cracked as Tanner walked up behind them, dust and branches clinging to his clothes, the bottom half of his pants caked in mud. “Where’d you go?” He demanded as he sat on Maelin’s left, stealing one of her perfectly brown marshmallows. She whomped him on the head with the handle of her roasting stick. “Ouch!” he ducked away from her. “What was that for?”
“Buzz off.” Maelin snapped. Tanner looked hurt as he scooted to the opposite end of the log. “I don’t want to talk about it, okay?”
Maelin felt as if she might cry again. It was bad enough that Allen thought he was being funny, her friends did not need to know what happened by the lake today. She popped her last marshmallow off the stick and thunked it against the log hard enough that it snapped in half before she marched away from the fire.
Tanner followed her. She barely acknowledged his presence with a growl and a glare. “You don’t have to tell me anything, but I thought you might want this back.” He stuck his hand in front of Maelin, a small knife in his palm.
Maelin snatched her knife from Tanner and shoved it into her pocket. “Where’d you get it?” She asked as she reversed direction walked toward the lake. The nearly-full moon lit the path well enough that she didn’t even miss the flashlight she usually carried around after dark. Tanner followed.
“What were you doing out of bounds?” He asked instead of answering.
Did Tanner want to get punched?
“None of your business.” Maelin growled.
Tanner whistled a cheery tune and pointed to the stars. “Look, it’s Orion.”
Tanner chatted as if Maelin hadn’t been snapping at him since he arrived at the fire. She felt a pinch of guilt. She stopped walking, the pocket knife thumping to a halt against her leg.
With a gasp, she turned to her friend. “What were you doing out of bounds!?”
Tanner gaped. “It took you that long to figure it out?”
Maelin straightened defensively, taking a deep breath to better her argument.
Tanner held up a hand. “I was looking for you! When Allen said you ran off in a huff, I knew that you wouldn’t pay attention to where you were going. You barely pay attention when a clearly paved road points you in a specific direction.” He was right. She was skilled at getting lost.
“I was not in a huff.” Maelin said, though her tone lost its bite.
“I know better than to believe everything Allen spews.” Tanner agreed. “But I had to find you before we lost you to the forest sprites.”
Maelin giggled. They had made up the sprites when they were six, the very first year their families had started traveling together. Every state they visited had a different sprite. West Virginia had forest sprites, vindictive little beings that bit like mosquitos, but left welts the size of Texas. Allen insisted that they were too old for sprites. Maelin and Tanner believed in them anyway.
“I found the knife about a mile from camp.” He smirked. “Must have been a forest sprite that led me to it. I never would have found it otherwise.” Maelin shifted uncomfortably.
“I found something else.” He hinted.
“Yeah?” Maelin asked.
“A dragon.” He whispered dramatically. Maelin jumped.
“Woah, it wasn’t a real dragon.” He put a hand on her arm as if she might take flight. Maelin wasn’t so sure that the possibility had passed. “It was a carousel. Strangest carousel I’ve ever seen.”
“With a gorilla?” Maelin asked.
“Yeah. And a badger…” Tanner started to say.
“Ostrich, polar bear, and bullfrog.” They finished together, listing the animals in order. “You saw it too!” They both pointed. “I didn’t make it up!” It was a real possibility since they both spoke with forest sprites every day.
Without conferring, they both ran into the woods. Tanner took the lead, guiding them back to the clearing without error.
Maelin immediately climbed onto the gorilla. Tanner leapt aboard the dragon, whistling shrilly.
“And now we soar!” He cheered and whooped as his imagination carried him over the land.
“Children.” Maelin grumbled in a tone she imagined the gorilla would use. “Always thinking they need to be showy.” She tightened her grip on the pole and squeezed her knees together. “We’ll show them!” In her imagination the gorilla dove into the trees, climbing and leaping with the agility of a much smaller monkey. She looked into the sky.
“Look out Tanner! There’s a flying sprite coming for you!” It was an orange sprite from New Mexico.
“He’ll never catch me.” Tanner ducked and hissed as if the dragon had released a throat full of flame. “But the gutter sprite might get you!”
“Drat. It must have stowed away from our trip through New York.” Maelin swerved and thumped the gutter sprite with her knife.
“Maelin! Tanner! Get down from there!” Summer broke the illusion with her mad stomping through the battle grounds. Maelin slid off the gorilla and leapt to the ground, her heart pounding three-thousand miles an hour. Tanner landed beside her. “That cannot be safe.” Summer nudged them away from the carousel before circling it.
“Why’d you follow us?” Tanner demanded.
“So you wouldn’t get into trouble.” Summer mumbled, her focus elsewhere. She stared at the ostrich as if she hadn’t seen anything so elegant in her life.
“You want to ride her, don’t you?” Maelin asked.
“No.” Summer glared at her friends. “I came to take you back to camp before our parents notice we are gone.”
“You just wanted to snoop.” Maelin nudged her friend closer to the ostrich. It was easy to stop Summer from tattling, just capture her imagination. “Sit on her.”
“No.” Summer shook her head, quite emphatically, but the sparkle in her eyes gave away her fascination.
“You can feel the feathers.” Tanner edged toward Summer, trapping her in front of the large bird.
“Ostriches are fast, you know.” Maelin said. “And fierce.”
Summer looked at Tanner, then Maelin. She laughed. “Alright, alright.” She hesitantly stepped onto the carousel platform. It creaked. She stopped.
“It hasn’t broken yet.” Maelin encouraged.
“Not helping.” Summer cautiously placed both of her hands on the large bird. Her eyes widened with wonder. “She’s incredible.”
Maelin laughed and climbed back onto the gorilla while Tanner mounted the dragon.
“Do you think we could get this up and running?” Summer asked after they had played for a while.
“No idea.” Tanner hopped off the dragon and walked around the carousel, looking under the platform. “There doesn’t seem to be any sort of plug.” He stopped. “Wait. There might have been one here, once.”
Summer passed him a flashlight. He shone it on the dark hole.
Maelin stuck her tongue out at him. “You won’t see anything in the dark. We’ll have to come back in the morning.”
“No…” Summer interjected.
“It was your idea to get it working.” Tanner reminded her. She shut her yap.
“Fine. I’ll come back with you tomorrow.” Summer pulled Tanner up by the back of his shirt. “Now let’s get back to camp before they realize we are gone.”
“Where were you last night?” Marley plopped onto the fireside log next to Summer. He tipped half his eggs onto her plate. She gobbled them down without answering his question. “Fine. Don’t tell me. I’ll just ask Tanner. He was up early this morning, rummaging through the van. I swear I saw several wires and tools sticking out of his pockets.” He slowly chewed a bite of toast. “I’m sure dad won’t mind, when I tell him…”
“Fine.” Summer slapped her hand over his mouth. “Shut up and I’ll show you later.”
“Oooh, show. Must be something good.” He spoke through her hand and raised his bread as if he meant to eat it through her palm. She removed her hand with a disgusted grunt and wandered off. He ate the rest of his breakfast with glee, snuck from camp before he could be roped into washing dishes, and found Summer on the path to the lake. Tanner and Maelin argued with her, falling silent when he approached.
“I bullied her into it.” Marley copped up to his behavior. “Had to see where you went off to.”
“Fine. But no one else knows.” Maelin insisted.
“I won’t tell.” Marley said. “Summer’s the weak link.”
Maelin glared at Summer.
“Aah, don’t put too much blame on her. I’ve had lots of practice pushing my little cousin’s buttons.”
“You are only three days older than me.” Summer protested.
“Still older. Now where is this mystery you were going to show me?”
Marley followed his friends down the path. They turned off of it when the lake became visible and walked through the forest until everyone was hot and sweaty. Anticipation caught his breath as his friends stopped walking. “Remember, this is top secret.” Maelin was so cute when she got all irate and commanding on them. He ruffled her hair. She swatted his hand and he ducked before she could deck him.
“I know. I know.” He pushed her through the last layer of trees and stopped as soon as he entered the clearing, his jaw falling to the ground.
“A carousel? You found a whole freaking carousel?” He bounced up to the carousel, stopping in front of the bullfrog. “Who puts a frog on a carousel?” He ran both hands over the carved animal, the skin smooth and warm beneath his touch.
“The same person who puts an ostrich on a carousel.” Summer jumped onto the platform and patted the Ostrich on the head. Maelin was already climbing onto the gorilla while Tanner straddled the dragon.
Marley walked around the frog three times. He felt as if it might leap off the platform the moment a proper breeze came up. He stopped behind the frog, ready to slide onto its back when he heard a crunch of branches. Everyone froze, silent and wary.
Katherine stepped into the clearing, her eyes snapping between the children and the broken ride. “You are going to be in so much trouble.”
Marley bounded off the platform and tucked an arm around her shoulders. “But you aren’t going to be the one to tell on us, now are you?”
Katherine plucked his arm off of her shoulders with a shake of her head. “You are out of bounds.”
“It’s a carousel.” Marley argued. “This is the best thing we’ve found since our parents decided that a week on dry land would be worth the cost of a crappy motel three weeks ago when it wouldn’t stop raining.”
“That motel had bugs.” Katherine said.
“See. The carousel is much better.” Marley tugged her toward the carousel. “Which one would you like to ride on?”
“It doesn’t work.” Katherine took two steps, then stopped.
“So?” Marley shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time our adventures were solely imaginary.”
Katherine looked from one eager face to another. “Alright. As long as we are careful.” She climbed onto the carousel, slowly circling the inner platform before settling on the badger with a decisive huff.
Marley grinned and returned to the carousel.
“Ouch!” A familiar voice yelped.
“Allen?” Marley looked under the carousel platform. Allen lay flat beneath it, barely fitting. If had been any less stick-like he never would have been able to wiggle under there.
“You stepped on my fingers, you big dolt.” Allen wriggled out of his hiding place.
“What are you doing here?” Maelin asked darkly.
“I followed Summer last night. Came out early this morning. Then you lot showed up and ruined a perfectly good adventure.” Allen pushed past Marley and plopped onto the large white polar bear.
“I found it first!” Maelin said.
“Yeah, but you wouldn’t have found it without me.” Allen argued.
“Guys, cut it out!” Summer interrupted. “There’s enough animals for all of us.”
Allen and Maelin cut a tense peace by ignoring each other entirely. It was enough for Marley. He climbed onto the frog with a grin.
Summer hummed a short tune. Tanner whooshed. Katherine whipped her head around, staring at the center column of the carousel. “Did you see that?” She asked.
“See what?” Summer said, her tune receding with the light breeze that had picked up only a moment before.
“The lights.” Katherine said.
“It’s broken.” Tanner also looked at the lights. “We already looked.”
Marley saw a glint of light behind on the edges of his own vision, a low tune carried on the now stronger breeze. He glanced at his friends. They each held the pole in front of themselves with both hands.
“Mmm, popcorn.” Allen broke his silence with a rumble of his belly. Marley could smell it too, buttery and warm.
The tune grew louder. “Summer?” he asked.
“Not singing.” She sounded less certain of herself than she had when they first arrived.
“Me neither.” Katherine was the second-best singer in their group.
“And nobody sings the piano.” Maelin added.
Marley closed his eyes, lights flashing across his lids. He opened his eyes, broken lights dancing in the sunlight. The flashing stopped as the platform shivered. He clung to the pole in front of him. “Guys?” He asked. Nobody said anything.
The world shivered and bent. The music rose loud and clear as if it played through car speakers. The bulbs sparkled with light and the carousel creaked to life. “Guys?” Marley asked again.
The frog rattled upward as Katherine’s Badger went down. Over and over the animals moved, the carousel spun in tune to the music.
“I think I’m going to be sick.” Tanner groaned.
“Don’t puke!” Maelin sounded a little freaked.
“I think we should get off.” Summer tried to slide off of the Ostrich. The carousel sped up and she clutched the pole instead, pale and shaken.
Marley closed his eyes and clung to the giant frog. The frog was a comforting solid mass beneath his butt as the rest of the carousel shivered and creaked. Somebody screamed, but the wind immediately whisked away the sound.
Just as Marley feared he would be thrown from his seat, the carousel thumped, then slowed. Marley opened one eye. The carousel slid to a smooth stop. He was too rubbery to slide from the frog’s back, but he managed to coax the fingers of one hand open when the creature beneath him moved. “Interloper!” The frog yelled.
“What?” Marley gasped as he fell from the frog’s back.
“Intruder! Stupid hairless monkey. You come from the same land as the sorcerers apprentices— come to Luminore catch us with your evil magic. I won’t fall for it.” The frog stood on his hind legs, his front legs held out as if he were preparing to hit Marley.
A very large, very angry gorilla approached the frog from behind. “They don’t smell of the sorcerers magic.” His voice rumbled through the clearing, pausing the chaos, if only for a moment. “Let us hear their tale.”