“Hey, you two, hold on a second!” Ellie’s words rang out sassy and cheerful. She leaned up against the cotton candy wagon to steady herself so she could slip off a shoe and shake out the sawdust. She blew a stray blond curl, sticky with perspiration, out of her eyes and sighed with contentment. Even though it was hot enough to fry an egg on the white line running down Main Street, Ellie loved the beginning of summer when the carnival came to town. It was the place that made her remember best how it felt to be young. All the sights and smells and sounds invaded her senses and carried her back to a time when life held nothing but possibilities, and unimaginable adventures were waiting somewhere, out there, to be experienced.
Only nineteen years had passed since she was the age of her son Josh, but it seemed a lifetime ago, before fear replaced anticipation and self-doubt replaced the longing for discovery. With the death of her parents in a car crash on the eve of her high school graduation, Ellie’s perception of the world had undergone a drastic change. The world was a dangerous place and life was short. She moved without hesitation from the protection of her loving, supportive, parents to the protection of a husband. George Sibley was alone, without a family, just like her, but he never talked about his parents or what had happened to them and Ellie was not one to pry. They found comfort in each other, at least for a while, in the beginning.
Contrary to what people thought, Ellie knew she wasn’t very smart. This was made plain as day to her as she struggled to get through school, barely graduating with her class. Deep down, she had always known that whatever worlds there were to conquer outside of Marysville, Wisconsin, they would be too overwhelming for someone with her limited capacities. Besides, she loved her part-time job at the beauty parlor, and the chores she had to do around their small farm weren’t all that hard. She’d been doing almost as many since she was ten years old and living there with her parents. She figured she’d be living and working there till the day she died, and that was fine with her. At least she would always be safe and secure.
She stopped her daydreaming and hurried to catch up with her young son and husband. Her seven-year-old had something on his mind today, that was for sure, and she intended to keep an eye on him. He hadn’t pestered her at all today to see the Egyptian belly dancer, or even to see the real live snakes in the jungle show. That had been his favorite since he was five years old. He was acting strange, all right, and she had a feeling she’d find out real soon what it was.
She caught up with them at a booth where Josh was staring with narrowed eyes at a heavyset, florid-faced man who was spinning a huge wheel set on a table. Her husband was looking around restlessly, bored to tears and, Ellie figured, already thinking about his poker game tonight. She took George’s hand. It lay limply in hers.
“So, what do you two want to see now?” She hoped her enthusiasm would infect her husband, but his answer was flat and indifferent.
“Doesn’t matter to me.”
Josh spoke without taking his eyes off the game. “Is it okay if we waited here just a few minutes?”
My Lord. She thought her kid was so polite and solemn sometimes it scared her. “Why sure, baby, we just want you to have a good time today.” She looked up at her husband for affirmation, but he ignored her and took a healthy swig from his pocket flask.
“Too damn hot to be walkin’ around.”
Ellie hated his drinking like crazy, but she knew better than to say a word about it, and she wasn’t going to let anything ruin Josh’s day at the carnival.
Her son was still staring intently at the wheel. It was divided into twelve sections, each of which had a hole at the edge with an attached can underneath. The man would spin the wheel, throw a white rat onto the wheel as it spun, put a whistle into his mouth, and lean down and blow a piercing scream at the rat. In total panic and terror, the rat would scramble around on top of the wheel looking for safety. Finally finding it, it would jump into one of the holes, thereby deciding the winner of the game. Then the man would take the rat out of the can and spin the wheel again. Two other rats were in a cage on the ground, awaiting their turn.
The whole scene made Ellie uncomfortable. She didn’t especially like to see any animal used like that, even a rat.
“Come on, Josh. Let’s not stay here. George, I don’t think I care to see this anymore. Doesn’t seem right to me.”
George misread her completely. “Yeah, hard to win on this one—just takes dumb luck.”
Ellie and George started to walk away, but Josh stayed glued to the spot. Ellie was getting impatient. “Josh, come on, sweetheart.” He still didn’t move a hair. “Josh!” His intensity was starting to frighten her.
Before she could grab his hand and pull him away, Josh made a flying leap at the spinning wheel and grabbed the rat who had just jumped for safety into a can. He bent down and swooped up the cage holding the other two rats and accidentally backed into the flimsy wall holding all the stuffed animal prizes, sending it crashing down on top of the wheel and the fat man. Josh jumped over the falling debris and took off running through the crowd.
Ellie looked after her fleeing son in amazement and then at her husband. He was as stunned as she was, but she thought she saw a flicker of approval in his eyes.
The fat man was hollering and blustering in a fit of rage. “Somebody stop that little son-of-a-bitch!”
Fat chance, Ellie thought, with everybody’s grocery money in his pocket. They’re having too good a time laughin’ at his expense. Exasperated, the man stopped shouting and started shoving through the crowd. A feminine foot reached out and tripped him as he passed, and he fell flat on his face into a mound of sawdust. He looked up at the crowd angrily and glared suspiciously at Ellie, but her face was all innocence as her husband shot her a look and steered her away from the unfortunate man shaking sawdust out of his hair and shouting obscenities.
Josh raced through the meadow so fast that he felt as though he was almost flying. All three rats were in the cage swinging at his side. He thought he would burst with satisfaction. For a year, he had waited for the fat man to come back so he could rescue the poor, scared rats. Last year, he had been too afraid and had walked away feeling like a crummy little coward. For a year, he had lived with his guilt, knowing he would never be able to stop thinking about it until he had the courage to do what was right.
Now he had done it! And it felt great. The animals were free, and he would make sure they stayed that way. Even if his parents screamed at him. Even if the police put him in jail and tortured him, they would stay that way. He would never act like a coward again.
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