James and I used the start of the summer to fill our heads with nonsense; his preferred form was smoke, mine online articles, both served as equal wastes of time. One day he mentioned he knew a girl who had a crush on me through school; Pam and I went on a date that was awkward, pointless, was going less places than a two-time felon on house arrest and we both knew it from the start. Regardless we ate dinner, talked, she didn’t end up hating me and I thought she was cool; we decided to try a night with James added.
It was that night we walked, three spread across the small town street. The air had been hot all day, the rare type of time when you wish for breezes not to blow; we were on our way to the Independence Day Fair. It hadn’t been my choice but it was our town’s true event of the summer; everyone went to make fun of those who didn’t. “And since matter can never be destroyed, the future could, theoretically, be predicted through math equations.” I said from the sidewalk.
“You just never let yourself have fun.” James noticed a pair of headlights coming up behind him, moved from the middle of the street to behind one of the parked cars lining the left side. The car drove past and a plume of smoke drifted from James’ hiding spot. I refused his offering of his joint. “What, was that the cops or something?”
“You two don’t even seem like you should be friends.” Pam laughed, shook her head no when James offered her a hit. “I’m not gonna get high two minutes before setting up explosives.”
James grumbled, puffed again, “Plans ruin everything.” Smoke drifted over the last word.
“You just never let yourself have fun.” I sneered at James; he jumped towards me in an attempted ball-tap but I’d seen it coming, moved out of the way, “Don’t say shit you don’t want used against you.”
“Yeah James,” Pam put her arm around my shoulder, “Eddy knows what he’s taking about; he fucked up his graduation speech so no one could ever use it against him.”
I slipped free. “We’re still on that?”
“Not much else has happened. Don’t start speed walking now I have to finish.” James complained, coughed behind me.
I slowed, sighed, “Fine. We’re talking about something else though. College?”
“How fun. Welcome to freshman orientation with Eddy Pilgrim.” Pam continued, “I don’t get why you’re so excited.”
“Well I want to go to school. I like it.”
“No,” James said; I saw a red ember fly over his shoulder, “You like learning.”
“Whatever.” I said, “It can be majors, I’m going for English-Writing-“
“We know.” James groaned, “But only I know you’re gonna write a book after. Whoops.” James snickered; I lunged at him but he avoided my hit like I’d done his.
“Really?” Pam asked in a flat voice.
“Oh look, we’re here.” I was grateful for it. The fair was held in the parking lot of the high-school, three-hundred and sixty four days out of the year the space was hopeless gravel; tonight was the exception, with food-trailers pulled in and game tents put up the lot almost looked capable of providing something worthwhile.
The fair had started hours ago, people were packed against each other into lines and single lanes of movement, blank looks on the faces of all. I sniffed; the scent of deep-fried everything was strong enough to mask everyone’s sweat. “Alright, I gotta go help my dad set up. I’ll find you guys in a bit.” Pam said then disappeared into the crowd.
James turned to me. “Food.” Then got in a line.
I had a few dollars in my pocket, looked at a game, another; I was finally old enough to gamble at the roulette booth. I began to squirm between people I half-recognized –the crowd doesn’t change at fair gambling booths, no matter if the scale is hours, days, or years- when James grabbed my shoulder, pulled me out. “You gotta try this.” He shoved a damp piece of deep-fried dough into my mouth.
I tasted hot-sauce, lemon juice, and powdered sugar, spit it out immediately. “Are you kidding me?”
“Look man,” James said, mouth full, dough hanging off like a noodle from a plate, “Everyone got out of line; the girl working must’ve did it to a whole batch or something. Appreciate it for what it is.”
Someone shouted behind me, I turned, saw a hand close around the roulette booth’s flag, bring it down with a RIP. “What the hell?” James went from devouring the last of the funnel-cake to licking its paper plate, was too busy to answer my question. I turned back around; a naked man, minus a portion of the American flag he held to his neck as a cape, burst through the crowd, sprinted past us both; James and I made eye contact, he’d definitely seen that, we burst into laughter.
“I wonder if he had good luck or bad.”
“Either way makes me not wanna play; come on, we’ll find something else.” It was easier getting through people than before, there weren’t less bodies but they all seemed to be still, distracted, occupied with occupying the space. We sped through, ended up at a game that we played every year: BB-Gun Bullseye.
A man already held the game’s only gun, and, I realized, had it pointed towards the crowd, us; I stopped, so did James. “Only a few letters off,” The words came from a familiar voice behind the man with the gun, the booth’s operator, “You can try again, but you gotta’ watch out cause this ones the LIGHTNING round. Ready?”
The man nodded, moved his finger towards the trigger; Pavlovian conditioning from my childhood forced my eyes shut, I knew how to minimize the pain of a BB’s thwack and sting but the delivery never came.
I opened my eyes a sliver, then all the way; the weapon was on the ground, standing up because of the way its compressed air tube ran to the booth. The man who’d been holding the gun had dropped to the ground, was doing push-ups that squished his beer-gut into gravel; he didn’t seem to mind the rocks as much as he did the exertion, his puffy face changed colors, sweat dripped and ran off his face. “A.” He yelled after the third push-up, “B.” The scream came from the ground, poor guy struggled hard with the fourth push-up but kept going with the alphabet, got all the way to ‘F’ before James and I made it to the booth.
“So, uh, what’s going on Jerry?” The same people ran the same booths every year; Jerry’s real job was manning the register at the corner store. We knew him well. “You changed the rules, or…?”
Jerry, who’d been smiling at the man on the ground, turned to me without breaking the grin, “Don’t judge me.”
“You’re so close-minded.” Jerry frowned.
I get angry when I’m flustered; James knew, stepped in. “You’ve seen Marsh haven’t you?”
I rolled my eyes. “What the fuck is going on Jerry?”
“JUST LET ME EXPRESS MYSELF!” Jerry screamed then grabbed his collar, tore, twisted until his t-shirt turned into a vest; he jumped from behind the counter, grabbed James’ shoulders. “LISTEN TO MEEE.”
“ALRIGHT. Man, alright, I’m listening.” James said, eyes wide.
A second went by, Jerry’s fingers loosened. “I need a cappuccino.” He let his arms drop, put his head down, slowly shuffled towards the middle of the fairground.
I looked at James. “That wasn’t drugs.”
“What else, then?” James looked around, “Wait, is it everyone?” A nearby game, original purpose to knock milk jugs from tables with softballs, had people behind the counter fighting over who could build them the highest; no one was able to get a bottle free from the wood.
“Maybe now would be a good time to leave?”
“You forget about Pam?”
“What, you just gonna be a dick your whole life?” James went into the crowd, I followed; normality had been eviscerated, each game’s intent had been abandoned, become taboo, people were doing anything; the same thing was obviously going on with the people handling food, I kept my shirt over my nose to avoid any insane odors.
We found Pam two rows of booths to the right, crouched in front of a man on all fours. On approach I recognized the person on their hands and knees as our ex-principal; a wiffleball fell from Pam’s hand when she saw us, she stood, looked from him to us, back and forth. “He…asked me to do this?” I raised my eyebrows. “You know how many times he got me on dress code violations? Always something dumb, like my fucking bra showing; you both know, so does he- our school doesn’t have air-conditioning. And every time he made sure to comment on my ‘mouth’ when I called the rule stupid.”
“I was hoping for an explanation more than an excuse; I don’t care about him. You know what’s going on?”
“Uh…” Pam put her hands on hips, clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, “Definitely not. But I have decided to have fun with it. Or at least I did until I realized the ball wouldn’t fit in his mouth.”
James nodded, “I think you still made the right call.” He crouched where she’d just been, pulled a joint from behind his ear, lit it, then blew smoke into our ex-principal’s face until the man coughed like he was trying to drown out an inappropriate talent show act. James laughed, “You guys don’t know how many times I dreamed of that.”
The two of them looked at me like I was supposed to do something; I froze. James offered the joint to Pam and she took it, puffed, puffed, held it out to me; my hands remained still. “I’m a little freaked out.”
“I saw whatever it was that happened, happen.” Pam said after another hit, “My dad asks me if something is safe, I turn, check, say yes, then when he doesn’t answer I look; he’s building a funeral pyre for his phone.”
James took the joint, “A what?”
“Something to burn dead people on.” I chimed in.
Pam nodded at me. “He had sticks and everything, I think from the rockets. Talking about an idea for a ‘hot new app’ the whole time.”
“You’re kidding.” James gave the joint back to her.
“No,” Pam shook her head, blew out smoke, “Why would I be? It’s not even a good joke.”
“Okay, seriously? Why am I the only one worried? Everyone has lost their minds, your dad-“
Pam raised an eyebrow at me. “Like everyone else can either be helped or not, but definitely not tonight. That leaves actual freedom in the time between. Nothing but opportunity.” She’d stated her case, crossed her arms; was settled in her belief.
I pinched my nose, “James, please, some sense.”
He shrugged, “She’s not wrong. We can do whatever we want.”
“We should want to figure things out,” I pointed past them, “For fuck’s sake that girl over there is trying to inflate a balloon with her ass.”
“That’s disgusting, and not gonna end well; still, I’m not worried.” Pam said, almost looked bored.
“And this is no different for me because I haven’t had a clue what’s been going on since graduation.” James added in.
I stayed silent to hide my frustration.
Pam winced, she’d burned her fingers; she let the roach fall from her fingers then stomped it out. “Guess what I did.”
“Ruined a quarter of my joint!” James dropped to the ground, “You’re lucky Marsh always comes to the fair; he sells pre-rolled blunts for five dollars.” Now motivated, inspired, he rose like a phoenix from ashes, took out his phone, tapped the screen a few times, stepped away with it pressed to his ear.
Pam looked at me like she felt bad. “Should I give him the five?”
I shook my head. “He’s got a problem.
She shrugged. “I hi-jacked the firework show.” I waited for an explanation. “My dad isn’t in the state to mind.” Again all I got was an excuse; again I didn’t mind.
James came back, shoulders sagged. “No answer. What’re we gonna do?” He moaned.
I grinned “Pam has news that should brighten you up.” She groaned.
We followed her to a hill I’d never been on to watch the fireworks, sat down next to each other. “Is it possible, and I’m not afraid, more curious, that we’re too close to the launch?” I could read her family’s last name off of the explosive’s scaffolding.
“Not if no one’s around to say so.”
I tried to meet her eyes, was unsuccessful. “I’m around.”
“Fuck you.” She said, and started the show.