What Only Time Can Know

Prompt 058: Summer

Carnival

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It had been three years since Captain Alleyne had come to visit Shadow, and Mal was out to the field before the ship even landed, his hair whipping in the wind generated by the engines.

She'd gotten tall—almost as tall as him—and her body curved in ways that made him think of lush hills and secret forests. Gone were the braids he had loved to tug on when they'd chased each other through his mother's cornfields. Her hair blew free in the mild summer breeze; long curls that made him want to tangle his fingers in it and tug, tease in an entirely different way. Her eyes were still the same though, dark brown and full of life, deep as the ocean and sparkling like sunlight dancing over the waves.

"Hey there, farm boy," she said, catching him up in her arms and hugging him tight. His arms came up awkwardly, intensely aware of her softness pressed against him, the scent of her that filled him. He should have been prepared for this, he thought. After all, he was sixteen and she wasn't far behind. But somehow it hadn't occurred to him that she would have grown up, too.

She released him and stepped back a pace, slipped her hand in his and began to pull. "Come on. Daddy says the carnival's in town."

"But, I can't… I mean I don't," Mal trailed, confused and overwhelmed by all his senses.

"Zoë?" The sound of thudding footsteps against the dock accompanied a deep, stern voice. "Where you draggin' that poor boy off to?"

"The carnival, sir," Mal answered, a little nervous beneath Captain Alleyne's penetrating stare.

"Oh really?" he asked, with an amused sideways glance toward his daughter. "Well, you better be takin' this with you, then." The Captain dropped some coins into Mal's confused hands, and Mal looked up, dumbfounded and grateful.

And then his face fell again. "Thank you, sir," he said, beginning to hand the money back. "But I can't. I have chores, and my Momma—"

"Get on with you, now," the Captain said, jerking his head in the direction of town. "I'll deal with your Momma, son."

"But—"

"Get."

It was coming up on dusk when they hit the fair. The air smelled of roasted peanuts and confectionary dreams, and lights twinkled all around them, a dazzling rainbow of colors against the darkening sky. Carnival barkers shouted in the distance, extolling the virtues of bearded women and spider ladies, and from all around came the sounds of bells ringing, balloons popping, BB guns firing, and the laughter, squeals and screams of children as they whizzed by on dizzying rides at breathtaking speed.

Mal stood and stared up at the gigantic wheel that cut a dark silhouette across the sky, its girders and beams glowing with a million tiny white lights. The Turning Wheel, they called it, and all the girls in town thought it was the shiniest thing they'd ever laid eyes on. He'd never had much occasion to ride in one since the girls never paid him any mind, and what happened at the apex of its turn was a mystery to him, something the older boys whispered about.

"Zoë?" He licked his lips, gathered his courage. "You wanna—"

But she was grabbing his hand, looking the other way. "Look. They got a shootin' range over there!"

Now that was more his style. He couldn't suppress a grin as he let himself be pulled along.

Mal let loose a low whistle as Zoë unloaded on a huge grizzly bear, its muzzle twisted and frozen forever in a terrifying snarl as it loomed over—of all things—a couch in the set in the middle of a parody of somebody's living room. The girl was good. At least three of her shots got the thing square in the target on its chest. Good, but not quite good enough to win.

"Here," she said, handing the gun to him. "Your turn."

He aimed for the owl posed in mid-flight that swooped up and down on fishing wire from the fireplace mantle, and hit it five times, square on the target.

"Damned fine shootin', son," said the carney behind the counter as he walked over. He motioned to the wall on his left. "Pick out one for your girl."

"She, um," Mal stuttered, blushing. "She's not, uh." He faltered, then gave up entirely and pointed. "That one."

"Interesting choice," the carney said, giving him a look. "You ever seen one of those before, son?"

"Nope," he answered truthfully. That's why he'd picked it.

It was a giraffe, the carney said. It smelled of mothballs and its impossibly long neck was bent at an odd angle, but Zoë laughed, clutching the stuffed animal to her chest, and her smile was like a thousand suns, sending light right down to his toes. She kissed his cheek, a whisper of warmth and the faint scent of cotton candy, and left him with a goofy grin and eyes that couldn't quite meet hers.

The evening passed in a dizzying blur of colors and laughter, and by the time they left, Mal felt full and satisfied, his belly aching a bit from all the food they'd eaten.

As they walked down the lane toward the farm, Zoë fell into step beside him, slipped her hand through his. Stuffed giraffe held in the crook of her other arm, she looked over and smiled at him. He smiled back, and they shuffled through the darkness in companionable silence.

Later, they sat in the barn loft, feet dirty and dangling in the empty air, staring up at the stars. The stuffed giraffe sat between them, its body askew upon the uneven surface of hay, and Zoë's fingers twined comfortably between his. Crickets chirped somewhere in the darkness below, and the night air was hot, heavy with the promise of rain.

"You're gonna be going soon," Mal said.

"You'll see me again," she said.

And he knew he would, trusted that he would, somehow. But it wouldn't ever be like this between them again. He knew that, too.

He looked over at her, wanting to explain what he felt in his heart, but even he didn't quite understand it, this sense of foreboding, this aching desperation to do something--

"Stop worryin' so gorramn much," Zoë said, and when his mouth fell open in shock to hear a lady speak that way, she leaned in and kissed him.

She tasted like the carnival, a whirl of exotic flavors and glimmering lights, and for a second, he didn't quite know what to do with his mouth. And then her tongue touched his, swirling, exploring gently, and he forgot to think, instinct bringing his arms up around her body, pulling her closer.

The giraffe squished out from between them until there was no space left between their bodies, and Mal felt like he was flying, like a kid on Christmas morning with a new toy and all he ever wanted to do was hold her, keep kissing her like this.

He fell into it, was swallowed by it, and the whole world was the wild scent of hay and the taste of sugar still clinging to her lips. He swept his tongue over the sweetness, stealing it from her mouth, kissing it away until he couldn't breathe, until he didn't know what else to do, and finally, he drew apart from her, staring in surprise and wonder.

She gave him a crooked grin and arched a dark brow at him. "Well. Ain't that somethin'?"

"I'll say," he muttered. He was breathless and he felt lost, the ache inside him not soothed by her kiss, but intensified. He didn't want her to go, hated that she had to leave again, just like he did every time, but this time, it was different. And he guessed all that must have shown plain as day on his face, because she smiled at him, gentle and warm, her very eyes a promise.

"You'll see me again."

She pulled the giraffe up into her lap and took his hand in hers again, scooting up next to him until their hips touched. And side by side in the magic of a summer's night, they sat and watched the moon rise over the fields, their hands and spirits speaking all the things they didn't know how to say.