Copyright 2012 ©
Distribution of any or all of this work is strictly forbidden without the express written permission of the author.
I would like to thank my agent, Peter Rubie, of Fine Print Literary Management for his steadfast support and that of Brooks Sherman as well. Bigger and better boys. Bigger and better. I would also like to thank my wife, Rene, for supporting a crazy notion for so many years (or is it decades) through the ups and the downs. The term soulmate seems sadly inadequate in describing you.
In this brave new and very democratic world of digital books authors live or die on fan support. If you enjoy Crossroads please take a moment to mention it on Facebook or Twitter. Thank you. –Chandler McGrew
Hey diddle diddle
We’re trapped in the middle
With the cat and the cow and the spoon.
We all want to dance
With the girl in the trance
But not while death calls the tune.
-Diddle Me This by Maggie Bright
From Shadow People
As the semi rattled to a stop in a screeching blast of air brakes, Kira Graves swung the big passenger door open, grimacing as the wall of heat struck her in the face. The flat griddle of parade ground was surrounded on three sides by palmetto marsh. Across the road lay more swamp thick with live oaks bearded heavily with gray Spanish moss. The feeling of being encircled made the heat even more oppressive.
“Wake up your mom, Hon,” said her dad, climbing down on the other side of the truck.
Kira watched the other rigs pulling off the highway as she walked to the back of the long, silver-sided, freight trailer with its painted show-banner reading World of Magic Carnival. She unhitched the bottom lock-bolt on the smaller entry door that was cut into one of the two big swinging rear doors. Jen trotted over to boost her up and inside, and Kira slipped past the heavy wooden stoop that her dad and one of the roustabouts would lower into place later. She hurried down the aisle-formed of hanging blankets-along one side of the trailer and parted the curtain into her mother and father’s bedroom, discovering that her mother was already awake, sitting on the edge of the mattress, rubbing her eyes, rimmed now with red.
“Hello, Darling,” said her mother, opening her arms for Kira.
Kira fell into her embrace, soaking up the warmth and love that always overflowed there. Her mother was petite like Kira, with the same short blond hair and big brown eyes, but she radiated an inner glow that Kira was sure could light the whole show if she needed it to. Kira pulled back a little, and her mother kissed her cheek wetly.
“Your eyes are red, Mom,” she said.
Her mother sighed. “Just tired.”
“You had another nightmare.”
Her mother nodded sadly. She might not tell Kira what the dreams were about, but she couldn’t hide their effect.
“Where’s your father and Jen?”
“I guess Dad’s already setting up. Jen is just outside.”
“Well, let’s go help, then.”
Her mother slipped down off the back of the trailer, then turned to help her out. Jen followed them onto the parade ground where Dad was shouting at roustabouts who were dragging out tent poles and midway gear even as more trucks were still pulling in. They went to help Fat Alice who was griping at Whiskey Coot as he stacked painted sections of plywood that would be Alice’s Penny-in-the-Bottle shack.
“We got this handled,” said Alice, giving Kira the eye. “You help someone else who needs it. Coot is perfectly capable of doing a days work when he’s sober.”
Alice slipped a hand the size of a smoked ham into a hidden pocket and handed Kira a sugar cookie. Kira smiled. Then she and her mother and Jen ambled on along the line of flagged stakes that Bennie the Barker was driving to mark the midway. Finally they spent a couple of hours helping to set up the Three-in-One, the Guess-Your-Weight, and the Shooting Gallery. Kira and Jen held the funnel while Fuzzy gassed up the big diesel motor for the Ferris Wheel a group of roustabouts were wenching onto its stand. Then she and Jen ran to catch up with her mom again. She was standing beside Kira’s dad, watching men lay out big wooden poles for the tent that would be the Haunted House.
“I’m gonna run into town and pass out some flyers and passes,” said her father, rubbing Kira on top of the head. “You wanna come?”
She glanced at her mother and saw again the deep sadness in her eyes.
“I’ll stay with mom,” she said, quietly.
“No,” said her mother, equally softly. “You go with your father. It’s good for you to be together. I’ll stay and make sure no one breaks anything. If that’s possible.”
“Hon-” said Kira’s dad.
But her mother shook her head. “You two need time together.”
When Jen started to follow, Kira’s mother placed a hand on her arm.
“She doesn’t need you right now, Jen,” said her mother.
Jen shrugged to tell Kira that she would stay. Kira’s dad got the keys to a rusted, open-top Jeep from one of the roustabouts and tossed a couple of cardboard boxes into the back. Kira climbed into the ripped leather seat, dodging loose springs. Her father glanced at her in her worn jeans and white t-shirt and smiled.
“Off to the big city,” he said, as the car lurched ahead and out onto the highway.
Kira laughed. There were no big cities for miles. The parade ground lay a couple of miles outside the small town of Kisskawanee, and the town leased it cheap for fairs, carnivals, and flea markets.
Her father sensed her pensiveness and studied her face as she squinted into the sun ahead.
“Things will be all right,” he said, sighing.
She nodded, wishing he wouldn’t lie to her or to himself, but it was something he had to do. They were all doing it. She was lying by nodding her agreement.
“I love being a carney,” said Kira.
Her father’s smile returned, but this time it was melancholy, almost sad.
“I know you do. You have the show in your blood.”
“I don’t ever want things to change.”
Her father turned away to face the road again, his lips tight, and in that instant Kira knew that things were going to change, and there was nothing she or anyone else could do about it.
In most ways Kisskawanee was like every other small town Kira had known. A wide Main Street lined with shops that were slowly going out of business. The outlying land-on the opposite side of town from the parade grounds-had once been drained and clear cut for farms, but now was spotted with developments for the swarms of retirees filling Florida like God’s waiting room. Somewhere up the road would be a Wal-Mart Super Store where the locals now bought their clothes, their food, and most every other thing they needed.
Downtowns in the old villages of Florida were tough, though. They might be sick, but they weren’t gonna just roll over and die. The people you saw running the stores there tended to be older, with hard faces and sometimes soft eyes. They longed for a time that Kira sensed was passing them by, and she wondered what the world would look like when there were no more downtowns at all, just highways lined with Home Depots and MacDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chickens.
She hardly noticed the way the towners looked at her as she walked quietly beside her dad. They were recognized right off as from away, but as soon as her father started shaking hands and passing out flyers the first thing people did was give her a good once-over. She’d realized early on that towners figured she must have a hard life, that she was probably uneducated and maybe pretty rough around the edges. Lord knew what else they thought, but she didn’t know any towners well enough to tell them that she could read on a college level, that because of Fat Alice’s tutoring she was two grades ahead in math, or that Shakespeare was boring if you compared him to Dean Koontz. She simply accepted the free soda that was offered in the Dairy Treet in trade for the passes, nodding her thanks silently and looking demure.
“Mom had another nightmare before we pulled into the parade grounds,” she informed her dad, as they stepped back out of the hardware store onto the crackling hot sidewalk.
Her father sighed loudly.
“Why did she tell Jen I wouldn’t need her?” she asked.
Her father stopped, staring at cars passing as though looking right through them. He slipped one muscular arm around her shoulders and tugged her against his side, but he still didn’t look at her.
“You know how much your mother and I love you, don’t you, Hon?”
She nodded, wrapping her own arm as far as it would go around his broad back, trying to squeeze him as much as he squeezed her.
“We would never let anything to happen to you if we could stop it,” said her father.
“What could happen to me?” she asked, hearing echoes of her mother’s midnight cries inside her head.
“Nothing,” said her father, a little too quickly. “Your mother is just getting me spooked.”
“She sees the future.”
“Is something really bad about to happen?” she asked.
He leaned his head way back on his shoulders, staring now up at the wide green canvas awning shutting out the afternoon sun. Cars passed slowly on the street as though the heat made them as lethargic as the people outside the shops along the walk.
“I hope not, Hon,” he said, turning to guide her on down the sidewalk. “I really hope not.”
“Is it my fault?”
He stopped to kneel in front of her, bringing his face close to her own.
“Don’t you ever think that. Not ever. Nothing that has happened or that may happen is your fault. None of it. Do you understand?”
She nodded, but she wasn’t sure she believed.
They spent the rest of that Friday handing out flyers and passes in town, then walking the midway, checking to make sure that everything was ready for the show opening the next day. Balky Sam, the wiry old black man with the bushy gray mustache complained that the cops had given him a hard time about the setup on the Wheel-of-Fortune.
“They all but tore the damned thing apart, Rader.”
Kira’s dad just smiled ruefully, shaking his head. “Don’t worry about it, Balky. It’s not the first time.”
“But Goddamnit! We run a clean show. No sticky wheels or magnet catches.”
“You know that, and I know that, but they’re towners.”
“And we’re carneys,” agreed Balky.
“You can’t cheat an honest man.”
“Watch me,” said Balky, smiling.
“We don’t cheat people,” said Kira, “do we, Dad?”
“Never. The games are built in our favor. That means that the odds are we’re gonna make money on ‘em, but we don’t rig them so that people will lose whenever we want them to. There’s a difference. Do you understand?”
Kira nodded. “You don’t mess with fate.”
Her father chuckled under his breath. “Close, but think a little harder.”
Kira frowned, picturing the wheel. She understood how the odds worked. There were more chances that it wouldn’t fall on a mark’s number than that it would, but that didn’t mean anyone made it not fall on the number. Still, the show wouldn’t run a game where there were even odds. They’d never win or lose anything, just break even.
“You don’t rig the game or mess with fate,” she mused, trying to understand what she was missing. She could almost see it in her father’s eyes. “But you work it so the odds are in your favor.”
Her father nodded. “That’s not cheating. You understand?”
“I think so.”
“Fate favors those who use their talents to the fullest. You can’t bend fate to your will, but you can try your darndest to put yourself in a position to win by manipulating things in your favor, always staying one move ahead of your opponent. My father taught me that.”
The crowds were thin all day Saturday, but by that night the midway was full of towners, meandering around with their popcorn and cotton candy and fresh roasted peanuts, saturating the night air with odors that Kira associated with home. By bedtime she was exhausted from taking over for barkers on their breaks and from selling tickets for two hours as well. But even though the night seemed like so many normal nights before, a dull and not quite definable sense of foreboding had followed Kira everywhere since late afternoon. By bedtime it had grown into a nervous certainty that the terrible calamity her mother had foreseen and her father had sought so hard to deny was now hanging like a roustabout’s sledgehammer right over the show.
Because they often had to haul different odds and ends of equipment in the trailer her father had converted into their home Dad had never installed real walls. Partitions were simply blankets or drapes on ropes, even enclosing the toilet and sink and shower. Slipping into the bathroom Kira brushed her teeth, staring at the bare wall of the trailer where no mirror had ever hung. Finishing her nightly toilet she met her mother in the hallway.
Kira stopped and hugged her, burying her face in her warm blouse.
“What are your nightmares about?” Kira whispered.
Her mother hugged her tighter, stroking back Kira’s hair and kissing her forehead.
“Sometimes people owe a penance for things they didn’t do, simply because of who they are. One day maybe you’ll understand…Maybe tomorrow we should talk.”
“Why not now?”
“Because I need to speak to your father first, and because some of the things that need to be said should be spoken only in the light of day.”
“I’m scared,” Kira admitted.
“Your father and I are going to protect you,” said her mother, but Kira heard something close to an echo of her father’s lie in her mother’s voice, and when they stared into each other’s eyes her mother knew she knew.
“Maybe nothing will happen,” said her mother.
She reached into her blouse and removed the small necklace she wore always on its silver chain, placing it around Kira’s neck. The shiny pendant formed a half-open, staring eye.
“Promise me you’ll never take this off.”
Kira nodded her promise. “What is it?”
“It’s called an Oculet, and it’s your birthright,” said her mother, frowning. “If anything happens… Don’t ever take off the necklace.”
“Daddy has one like this,” said Kira, staring at the amulet before slipping it inside her tshirt.
“Yes, he does.”
“Jen will know before anything happens,” said Kira.
Her mother smiled sadly. “I think maybe Jen was sent to you for just that reason.”
Kira nodded. “She’s my best friend.”
“More than that. She’s your light. You follow her when it gets dark.”
When Kira nodded again her mother stared blankly ahead for a moment, as though lost again in one of her nightmares.
“If anything happens, trust Jen,” her mother whispered, holding her out at arms length. “Now it’s time to get into bed. Things will look brighter in the morning.”
Outside Kira could hear Bennie the Barker, announcing over the PA that all the rides were closed. The creaking of the Ferris wheel as it ground slowly to a stop. Fat Alice, trapped in her tent folds again, shouting at Whisky Coot to wake up and come untangle her. Drunken or disoriented towners, trying to find their way out of the grounds and bumping into the trailer on the way.
Her mother hugged her again, kissed her, and patted her on the bottom, nudging her down the narrow corridor toward her and Jen’s bedroom. But the sense of impending doom still clung, and she jerked back the blanket and fell across Jen onto her side of the mattress, clawing at the sheets and burying herself beneath the covers. As she huddled there, trembling, she felt Jen’s powerful hand forcing itself under the linens, finding her own, squeezing hard.
“You are who you are,” said Jen, cryptic as always, and Kira finally took a long deep breath, slipping into the woman’s wide embrace, feeling her fear draining slowly away, and finally sinking into sleep.
She awakened sometime in the night, noticing first that there was no hint of her father’s snoring. He always snored. Always. Either he was awake, or he was not in bed, but outside she could hear the thrumming sound of the generator powering the airconditioner that cooled the trailer. All the midway lights were out, and only bleak starlight shone through the one, tiny window high overhead.
She rolled onto her side, lightly brushing Jen’s shoulder. Jen flopped onto her back, her eyes wide open. Kira slipped past her, climbing into her jeans. She tiptoed down the passageway and slid aside the cloth partition in front of her parents’ sleeping area. There was no one there. The clock on the bedside table read ten minutes after two. Her father was always up before the sun rose, checking out machinery or drinking coffee with the roustabouts, but it was still hours before dawn, and until then her mother would be lying there beside him. Always.
A tingle of fear tickled its way up her spine, and she hurried back to her room, pulling a sweatshirt over her t and slipping into her sneakers. Jen sat up and tossed off the blanket, fully clothed as always.
“Something’s wrong,” said Kira, afraid that the evil she had been sensing for weeks, the source of her mother’s visions, was finally upon them.
Jen nodded, cupping a hand to her ear. “Listen.”
For some reason the generator no longer thrummed, and the airconditioner fell silent as well. Suddenly Kira thought she heard a cat screeching, far off in the distance. Then there was deathly quiet again. When the next shriek sounded it was closer, and she knew instantly that it was no cat. Jen rose to her feet with no fear on her face, but she almost never showed emotion of any kind. Kira doubted if she’d look scared while a crocodile was eating her.
Suddenly there was a chorus of screams, as though every man and woman in the show were crying out at the top of their lungs together. Kira took Jen by the hand and led her through the curtain toward the rear of the trailer. The small door hung half open, and although the cries were coming from the front of the truck toward the midway, they seemed to fill the dark night out back as well, as though the black sky were an echoing metal bowl. Kira led Jen down the wooden steps, and leaned to peek around toward the midway.
No light shone, not even in Bennie the Barker’s trailer, and he left them on asleep or awake. He always said darkness was not his friend. Kira had never thought it was her friend, either, but she had never feared it the way she did this night.
Between the screams ripping the air all around them, she could barely make out a strange clicking sound, like giant insects rubbing their wings together. She peered into the darkness, but it was as though some force of nature were sucking the light right out of the stars twinkling dimly over their heads.
Where were her mother and father?
She clutched Jen’s hand tighter, the sounds reminding her of something else her mother had once told her.
Evil sounds and smells mean evil deeds.
There was a rustling behind the trailer, and she spun on her heel. Suddenly her mother was kneeling in front of her, shaking like a leaf and clasping Kira tightly. There were tears in her mother’s eyes, her hair was disheveled, and she was gasping for breath. She seemed terrified and sad at the same time as she pointed across the dark highway.
“Go that way!” she said, just loud enough for Kira to hear.
Kira shook her head, but her mother kissed her, then shoved her away. “Go! Don’t look back. Keep running.”
“Mother, please!” said Kira, clutching at her. “What’s happening? Where’s Papa?”
Her mother’s shoulders sagged, but she shook her head and pointed once more toward the trees. “I’m going to find your father. You have to run away now. Hide!”
“No, Mama! Please come with me!”
Her mother shoved her toward the road once more, her eyes hard now. “We’re all paying for something we didn’t do, Kira. I don’t want you to have to pay for it, too. Listen to Jen. Now run!”
“What about you?” whispered Kira. “What about Daddy?”
Her mother blinked away her tears. “I’m going to find him,” she promised, turning to Jen. “Take her into the woods. If we can get to you we’ll be there in a few minutes. If not… Run away. And don’t come back here. Ever!”
“Mama!” Kira sobbed, wrapping her arms around her mother’s waist, but her mother pried her fingers away.
Tears poured down her mother’s cheeks. “If I can, I’ll find you. I promise… Now go!”
Then another kiss on the forehead, a last shove toward the wooded swampland across the highway, and her mother was gone into that awful darkness between the trailers. Kira barely felt Jen tugging her toward the road and then across. As they crashed through the stinging palmetto and sawgrass and into the mucky undergrowth beyond she heard the last of the screams falling away, and she realized that her mother had not told them where to go if she and Papa didn’t show up or when they could stop running.