We were losing our last softball game of the season and my dad was pissed, but he had been pissed for a while. The game was held at Meadowbrook High School where grass sprouted from the diamond like a five o’clock shadow and there weren’t even white chalk lines. I kept scratching my shins in the overgrown outfield, where freshly hatched insects chattered. My dad stood at the sidelines, rocking on his heels. He wore a tight ball cap. The sun glared high and angry. Most of us hoped the game would end soon, so we could get wasted at the annual Meadowbrook carnival.

A smattering of haggard parents sweat on the bleachers thumbing their phones, except for Francine’s mom who used the communal setting to complain loudly about her ex-husbands. Francine used to play on our team, but she died at the carnival last year from heat exhaustion and too much fun. Her mom still attended every softball game, and it made everyone uncomfortable. She was a large woman with fake eyelashes and always seemed to be nursing an injury. Today her left arm was wrapped loosely in ace bandages and raised like she had a question.

“At least my last husband sent a card,” Francine’s mom told the small crowd. “I got a big pile of nothing from Francine’s dad. Our daughter is dead for god’s sake, and he won’t talk about it.”

“Bring it home, girls,” Coach Whitehead hollered from the third base line, drowning out Francine’s mom. He saved a cigar behind his ear, which he relit between innings while he argued on his cellphone. All our coaches were disheveled fathers with bowling ball bellies, who walked like they had a tail between their legs. Most of them were making up for something. I knew because my dad was one of them.

I was pretty sure my dad knew my best friend Hailey and I were stoned. He didn’t talk to me the whole game. Didn’t even yell, Wake up, Sonya! like he usually did. Just shook his head when a fly ball hit my nose and Hailey fell over laughing on second base.

Ever since my mom’s stroke last winter, my dad quit smoking. He used to get high in our garage nearly every night while pretending to fix appliances that never needed fixing. Now he spent his evenings watching TV in the living room where he fell asleep. Sometimes I pretended I wanted a glass of juice at night like it was some quirk I developed, but I really wanted to linger in the kitchen and spy on him. He watched a show where a group of guys would hurt each other or themselves and fall over laughing, all bloody and shirtless. He would release a shoulder-shaking laugh and repeat to himself, “He just kneed him in the nuts. Right in the nuts.” It was the happiest I’d ever seen him.

On the other side of the recreation area at our high school, a lacrosse game played out on the fresh turf. Whistles, cheers, and barbeque smells floated toward us. Unlike softball, everyone treated lacrosse like a second religion in our town. Only pretty girls whose moms drank white wine at the public pool played it. Their families were dynasties at Meadowbrook and the coaches had full-page profiles in the local paper. The girls ran across the field like prized ponies and shook hands with the opposing team, while us softball girls had acne scars on our shoulders and punched each other’s boobs for fun.

After we officially lost our game, my dad was supposed to drive Hailey and me to the Shotgun Diner where my mom worked. We went there after every softball game to eat free pancakes. Hailey and I planned to binge on diner food before we got stupid at the carnival. But my dad ignored us as he packed up the car. The other coaches slapped each other’s backs in the parking lot and made plans to meet at the carnival later.

“You in, Greg?” Coach Whitehead asked my dad, blowing smoke over his shoulder.

My dad rattled softball bats into our trunk and slammed it closed. “Bunch of bastards,” he said to himself.

“Well, all right.” Coach Whitehead climbed into his truck with his daughter who looked a lot like him. Our coach didn’t care about losing as long as he could enjoy a beer with the other dads afterward. My dad, on the other hand, would sulk for days after a loss. When I was younger, he dreamed I’d become an all-star player, get a scholarship, and marry a doctor. He’d never have to work again. He soon learned I wasn’t any good at anything.

Hailey and I stood with our arms crossed and licked sunflower seed shells out of our teeth, watching my dad fumble with all the junk packed in his car. He climbed into the driver’s seat. “If you want to be jackasses, you can walk.” He drove out of the parking lot and disappeared up the road.

Hailey and I looked at each other and laughed.

“Your dad cusses like he’s a hundred-years old,” Hailey said.

“Girls!” Francine’s mom called to us, waving her bandaged arm. All the other parents had left. “Need a ride?”

We shook our heads no. Francine’s mom offered everyone a ride after our games. No one ever took her up on it. She rested her arm on the hood of her car then squinted at the empty field. “We would’ve won if Francine were here.” This wasn’t true. We usually lost, even with Francine.

“There’s no use telling you to be careful at the carnival today,” she continued, “but I have to say it anyway.”

After she drove away, Hailey and I went to the woods surrounding the high school where there was a hollowed-out sedan and a tree eating a speed limit sign. We smoked another joint I’d kept in my underwear and practiced pole dancing on a young tree until it snapped.

“The bark is chafing my thighs,” I said, examining the scrapes on my legs.

“You look freshly raped,” Hailey said.

I wrapped my legs around another tree and threw my head back. “I wish this were a sport.”

When we heard yelps from the lacrosse game ending, we returned to the parking lot to harass the girls our town worshipped. Though Hailey barely cracked a hundred pounds, she scared the shit out of people and threw more punches than any girl I knew. She still had a shiner from a scrap she had with a girl who tagged her out at home plate last week.

The lacrosse girls pranced to the parking lot, arms around each other, wearing jerseys and ponytails. Their parents wheeled coolers and packed them into vans with automatic doors. Hailey and I took off our cotton shirts and stuck them under the bleachers. I wore a hot pink sports bra and Hailey had an American flag bikini top. We were preparing to hock loogies at their cars, when Dead-eyed Dolton stole our thunder.

I had heard Dolton flunked a bunch of times or he was in the special-ed program at our high school. He was always hanging around at bus drop-offs and sporting events, but I never saw him in a class. Truthfully, I didn’t know much about him. No one did. He rode his bike around town and haunted places where people gathered, circling like a seagull. No matter the weather, he always wore a huge T-shirt and saggy jeans with chains. And, of course, he had dead eyes.

Some people thought Dolton had something to do with Francine’s death. A group of kids saw him biking around the carnival late into the evening close to where she was found. I even heard he spent a night in jail for questioning.

As he biked through the recreation field parking lot, the lacrosse girls covered their bare arms, as if there was something to see. Their parents shoed them inside vans like a flock of sheep. The beefier fathers made a show of folding and flexing their arms, watching Dolton make donuts around them.

“Hey, Dolton,” Hailey called. “You wanna ride something else for a while?”

Dolton stared ahead, not acknowledging anyone, just circling. The lacrosse families packed their belongings and daughters away. Dolton made a few more rotations, then returned up the road after the vans left. 

“Didn’t he get a girl pregnant?” I said.

“Three,” Hailey said. “They were all fat, I think.”

“Imagine him on top of you,” I said.

“Sonya.”

“What?”

“You’re crazy.”

We walked to the Shotgun Diner since it wasn’t that far anyway, and we weren’t old enough to drive. Local kids stumbled and hollered on the sidewalk, making their way to the carnival held in the fire department parking lot across the street from the diner.

The Shotgun was a small, narrow restaurant with a long bar and stools, facing the kitchen. No tables. It got its name, because you could kill all occupants with a shotgun from the front door. Pen drawings of old-time guns and photos of Bonnie-and-Clyde types plastered the walls. The stools were upholstered in metallic red. The floor was crimson.

Hailey and I sat a few stools away from the regulars who were all recovering alcoholics and retired men. They argued about the polluted watershed and corrupt city council until my mom served them gravy sandwiches and day-old blueberry pie.

I checked my reflection in a napkin holder. My nose was sunburnt and peeling. Hailey snapped my sports bra. I punched her boob.

My mom came out of the back kitchen and served us orange juice. She wore a red polo with her hair in a scrunchy like a cheerleader. Ever since her stroke earlier that year, her smile pulled to her right cheek, and she talked slower. Her words used to shoot and tumble over everyone else. But now they got caught between her brain and throat. She tilted her head if she had trouble, as if a sentence might roll out her ear.

The regulars at the diner would tease her and say things like You sure this one’s on the house? or We good for our date tonight? Then my mom would smile crooked, try to speak, and pour syrup on their eggs if she couldn’t. The men would laugh, but they never took the joke too far and sat patient if she really had something to say.

“We lost our game and Dad stranded us,” I told her.

“How—” Mom started.

“Give us two sunnysides with sausage—”

Hailey hit me with a menu. “I don’t want sausage.”

“What—” Mom said.

“Then what do you want?” I said.

“I like scrapple.” Hailey pulled at her split ends

“Scrap—” Mom said.

“Okay, I want sausage and Hailey wants pig assholes. And we want a short stack to share.”

“Whipped—” Mom said.

“Yes, whipped cream and the other shit,” I said.

Mom looked at me, her lips tight.

“What?” I said.

She blinked slowly, looked at Hailey, then back at me before returning to the kitchen.

“I love your Mom,” Hailey said, spinning in her stool.

We gorged ourselves.

Two men I didn’t recognize entered the diner and sat next to us at the counter. They were a lot younger than the regulars, but older than Hailey and me. They reeked of alcohol and sweated through their clothes. One of them wore a T-shirt from a college a few towns over. I knew the carnival brought in people from neighboring towns, but it always surprised me to see new faces in the Shotgun.

“I need potatoes,” one of them said to my mom. He looked at Hailey and me as he took a seat. His hair was buzzed on the sides.

We quietly forked our pancakes.

“They don’t have biscuits,” the other said, flipping over a menu. His skin looked nearly orange from sunburn.

Mom brought them water, coffee, and a handful of creamers. Hailey kicked me under the counter. I kept stuffing my face, so I wouldn’t laugh. The man who wanted potatoes turned in his stool to face us. His eyes were swimming.

“Hey,” he said.

Hailey burped the word, “Hey” back. I laughed so hard I spit pancake into my orange juice.

The man turned back toward his sunburned friend, who was gulping water. He put an elbow on the counter. It slipped off the edge. Mom approached us with her arms crossed. Her grimace pulled tight to her right and drooped on the left. “You. Done?” she asked.

My mom hadn’t said my name since her stroke. I could sense it crawling up her throat and bubbling in her mouth like a shaken beer, Sonya, Sonya, Sonya, but she wouldn’t say it. I wiped my mouth, then pushed off the stool. Hailey followed. The diner was quiet when we left.

When we reached the carnival, the sky looked like cotton candy and the Ferris Wheel lights glowed ripe. All the rides went in circles or back-and-forth. Smoking food trucks lined the perimeter of the lot, selling fried oysters, funnel cakes, and popsicles. Our 10th grade math teacher taught belly dancing under a tent, Mr. Field from the gas station hammered railroad spikes into knives, and Ada Collins sold feathers from peacocks she raised in her backyard. The game booths involved household items like ping pong balls and goldfish in glass bowls. Prizes had been donated by the girl’s lacrosse team. The revenue of the carnival went to our fire department and the organizers didn’t splurge on fancy fixings. For most of us, it was an excuse to get stoned and watch colors move.

Hailey and I first rode the Zipper, holding tight on the railing. When our car reached maximum force, I couldn’t scream anymore, but Hailey kept at it. We felt a dose too sober after that, so we headed toward the Ferris Wheel and finished our last joint when our cart reached the top. I could see smatterings of battered asphalt roofs and bloated maple trees, which my dad called filler foliage. Evidence of a town that didn’t give a shit. The state park surrounded a grid of residential streets. The Jones River cut through the dark veil of trees and escaped into the city harbor miles away. Hailey pointed her cleats at the horizon. Our cart rocked gently. The sky looked electric and dangerous.

“What if I jumped out of this cart right now?” Hailey said.

“Then I’d jump too.”

“Liar.”

This is a game we played.

I looked at the people below. “What would they do?”

“They’d make us an exhibit. One dollar to see the slut guts.”

Francine had been found slumped over inside the Museum of Mystique. It was a place not advertised with the rest of the carnival attractions. Kids went there to drink and round the bases. Families knew to stay away from there unless a teenager went missing like Francine did last year. One boy claimed he made out with her that day in the museum and she didn’t move much, but he didn’t know she was dying. I think he just wanted attention. Francine wasn’t good looking like the lacrosse girls, which is probably why most people acted like she never existed. She wore her hair in a tight bun and had large upper arms. Her biggest claim to fame was that she gave a blowjob in seventh grade before anyone else did. I wasn’t even sure that was true.

“I’m kind of jealous of Francine,” Hailey said.

“No, you’re not.”

Hailey put her chin on my shoulder. “She gets to haunt this place and scare people.”

“You already scare people.”

Hailey burped in my ear.

I burped back.

After the Ferris Wheel, we rode the swings with our mouths wide open. The lights twirled into a single mess. My scalp buzzed. Hailey and I tried to grab each other’s hands. The shirtless operator yelled at us from below. After that we bought grainy lemonade and sat on a curb where carnival games surrounded us. When boys our age walked past, we yelled, “Show us your tits.” They lifted their shirts and pointed to their nipples. We cheered if they had a nipple ring. Many of them did.

I spotted the two men we’d seen at the Shotgun. They finished a balloon game, then walked in our direction, toward the exit. They looked miserable.

 “Show us your tits!” Hailey yelled.

I kicked her shin.

The men stopped and eyed us. I stabbed my straw into the gnarled half lemon at the bottom of our drink. The man with his hair buzzed on the sides who wanted potatoes at the diner approached us. His sunburned friend with the college T-shirt followed with his hands in his pockets.

“I don’t have tits,” potato man said, as if it were a serious matter.

“Okay,” Hailey said and clicked her cleats against mine.

They asked where we were from. We said here. They said they went to college nearby. It was small and boring.

“We heard this place was fun,” sunburn man said.

“We haven’t found any,” the other added. His hands were on his head.

“Girls!” someone called from up the path. It was Francine’s mom. She had changed into a shirt with Francine’s face on it. The collar was cut and showed off her nude bra strap. Her left arm was still bandaged and raised. She held a piece of funnel cake in her good hand.

“I decided to come and make people uncomfortable.” She turned to the men and puffed out her chest to show Francine’s picture. “This is my daughter. She died here last year.”

“Sorry,” potato man said.

“Yeah, everyone’s sorry, sorry, sorry,” Francine’s mom sighed then took a bite of funnel cake. A wind picked up, and I worried her eyelashes might fly away. Screams swelled and dissipated from a nearby ride. A child stared at a goldfish in a Ziploc bag of water. It slipped from his hands and popped on the ground.

“You girls need a ride home?” Francine’s mom offered.

“We’re good,” Hailey said, shielding her eyes from the lowering sun.

“Drink plenty of water,” Francine’s mom told us then moved on down the path. She stopped in front of a man eating a popsicle and showed him her shirt.

“That was a bummer,” sunburn man said.

The men looked older as the sun went down. It was difficult to tell them apart. I wanted them to leave. I was tired of laughing. A group of lacrosse girls walked by, sharing a cloud of cotton candy. The men watched them pass. I thought they might move on from us, but then Hailey stood up.

“Let’s go to the museum,” she said.

I gave her a look that said no. She gave me a look that said please.

“What’s the museum?” potato man asked.

“It’s haunted,” she said.

“No, it’s not,” I said.

Hailey punched my boob. “Don’t be scared.” Then she turned to the two men who were smiling.

When the four of us reached the museum, there wasn’t anyone there to take tickets. It was held in an old fire department storage garage that was only used for this purpose. They didn’t even change out the exhibits. The four of us walked in together. The windows were spray-painted black and velvet curtains separated the exhibits like a maze. Christmas lights decorated the ceiling and a sinister laugh track echoed through the building.

Hailey was hanging onto potato man, pretending like she was scared, though I knew she wasn’t afraid of anything. I wanted to slap her for it.

I grabbed her wrist. “I don’t want to be here.”

“You don’t have to stay,” she said and disappeared behind a curtain with potato man, leaving me behind with the sunburned man.

I pushed the curtain away. They had moved on already and I knew I’d never find them. Sunburn man followed me through the museum. We passed through curtains and saw glass cases of fake severed fingers, shrunken heads, and high school kids making out in dark rooms. When we made it out of the museum, it seemed like the night had moved on without us. Eager stars poked holes in the sky. Everything smelled like dust. We waited until the food trucks stopped spewing smoke and only stragglers were left at the carnival, wolfing down sausages and trying the hammer of strength one more time.

“Looks like these people are missing a few chromosomes,” sunburn man said. I laughed like I didn’t belong to this place. I was too tired to do anything else.

“Do you want to wait in my car?” he asked. “I have weed.” His voice went all singsong when he said this.

I looked back at the museum and thought about Francine and what it felt like to slip away in a dark, hot place, and whether she was alone. “Fine,” I said.

The man’s red sedan was one of the few cars left in the lot. I sat in the passenger seat. Boxes were piled high in the backseat. Dirty papers at my feet. He put his arm around me to search the glove compartment, pushing through its contents half-heartedly.

“Damn,” he said, and his hand fell to my lap. “I must’ve left it at home.”

Then he stared at me. His eyes looked like my dad’s after he’d been in the garage for a while when he still smoked. I couldn’t stand him staring at me any longer. It made me feel small. So I kissed him, so we could close our eyes, so I didn’t have to think about anything. He kissed me back and it was hungry and strange, and I wondered if I had been kissing wrong my whole life. He bit me, and I bit back. He pulled away and smiled.

“You’re crazy,” he said.

I said I sure was, because I didn’t know what else to say.

I told the sunburn man I’d walk home. He didn’t argue and sputtered away. The parking lot was empty. It felt cold for the first time that night. I wished I had kept my shirt. Then I saw at the perimeter of the lot, under the copper street lights, Dead-eyed Dolton making his rounds. He had no more people to stalk in the area except me. He rounded the lot then stopped between me and the exit. As I approached, he stared above my head. His mouth hung open.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Fine,” I said, realizing I’d never had a real conversation with Dolton.

He took off his shirt and tossed it to me. It was sweaty, but I put it on anyway, even though it made me colder. His ribs were pronounced, and he wore a cross necklace.

“Need a ride?” he asked.

I looked back at the empty parking lot. Home was across town and I didn’t have Hailey beside me to make the walk faster. I walked up to Dolton and sat on his handlebars.

On the way to my house, we passed a group of lacrosse girls with their jerseys tied above their bellybuttons. Dolton’s shirt flapped against my body like a sail.

“Did you flunk high school last year?” I asked.

“I’m thirty-two,” he said.

Then I said, “Oh.”

He dropped me off at my house. I said goodbye. He didn’t say anything and biked back into the night.

Under the yellow flood lights over our garage, Hailey sat with her head on her knees. I kicked her shin. She squinted at me. Hickeys cluttered her neck like storm clouds.

“Everything’s spinning,” she said.

Inside the TV played in the back room. Our softball bats and gloves sat on the shelf by the front door. We snuck upstairs to my room. Hailey flopped on my bed, still wearing her bathing suit and shorts. I brought us a damp washcloth. We wiped our necks and dirty ankles. Hailey yanked a stuffed animal out from under her and threw it across the room.

I changed out of Dolton’s shirt into my own. “You left me.”

“Sorry,” Hailey murmured into the pillow.

“Where’d you go?”

She turned on her side. Eyes closed. “Don’t be a wimp. I’ll beat you up,” she said. Then she fell asleep, her jaw shifting and grinding like it always did.

I checked on my mom in her room. Her uniform was hanging over the top of her bedroom door, ready for the next day. She snored softly in the dark. It sounded stalled and frustrated.

I crept downstairs and poured myself a glass of juice from the fridge. My dad laid on the couch. Feet propped up. Socks loose on his feet. A bag of frozen home fries tucked behind his neck. The TV showed a man, nearly naked, jump in a trash can and roll down a hill. My dad laughed like a little boy and repeated softer and softer to himself, “He’s rolling down a mountain in a trash can. Just rolling down a mountain in a trash can.”

© Ellen Skirvin
[This piece was selected by Katrin Gibb. Read Ellen’s interview]