The carnival came two days after school let out for the summer. Amy’s flip flops scuffed along the dirt road, cutting the back way to the fairgrounds. As she got close, she saw the top of the Ferris wheel.
Amy loved carnival days. She remembered how Daddy used to hold her hand when they walked to the fair, how he would strap her safely into a teacup and wave every time she spun past him, Jacky high on his shoulders laughing. Daddy was gone now. There were no hands to hold.
Jessica and some other kids from her class had plans to meet at the fair this evening. She’d overheard them in the hallway. They hadn’t asked Amy to come along. It didn’t matter. She couldn’t have gone anyway. She had to babysit Jacky.
As she entered the midway, Amy frowned at her image in the glass of the cotton candy machine. Mama had talked her into getting a razor cut with lots of layers, layers that lay flat and clung to the sweat on her neck and forehead. “It’s just hair,” Mama had said. “It’ll grow back.” Yeah, right.
Amy fingered her tiny rosebud earrings, a wise purchase she’d made the other day at the Dollar Store. They were pink with tiny green leaves, something a princess with pierced ears would wear.
She walked past shooting games, the penny pitch, rubber duckies with winning numbers on their bellies. Huge stuffed animals silently watched her pass. It was still early. Carnival workers unpacked trailers and pounded stakes into the dusty ground. The air was filling with the spicy smell of sausages simmering with onions and peppers. A few of the rides were operating. Two boys, not much older than Jacky, piloted planes in lazy circles as their mother watched, frowning into the sun.
Amy sat down on a wooden crate, brushed the sawdust from between her toes. She checked the pocket of her shorts. Two dollars.
“Hey!” A boy in a backward baseball cap exhaled cigarette smoke. He was clearly older than Amy. His black tee shirt shouted MIAMI in big red letters. You could see through his scrubby moustache to the skin of his upper lip. “Hey,” said Amy, lowering her eyes. His dusty boots had steel toes. She knew because Daddy had had the same kind.
“You from town?” he asked, his eyes never quite meeting hers. They were slanted and reminded Amy of a cat.
“Yeah. You from Miami?”
“Who me?” He looked down at his chest. “Nah, just a shirt. Want a free ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl? That’s my baby there.” He motioned to the empty ride.
“It’ll be the longest ride you ever got,” he said, pulling the metal bar across her lap. He grinned, leaning on a large lever, as she reeled dizzily past him again and again. He was true to his word, and Amy began to worry that the jerky twisting and twirling would never stop. When he finally released the bar, her knees felt weak and her stomach churned.
“Ever been on a date?” Miami clicked his lighter and inhaled another cigarette.
“No. Not really,” Amy thought about the time Billy Jacoby walked her home from school. Did that count as a date? Not really. Billy was the only boy who’d ever paid any attention to her, and he was even further from being popular than Amy.
“Want to go on a date now?”
“Yeah. Sure.” Her heart beat faster. She looked at his arms, strong and tan. He must be at least seventeen or eighteen.
“Want an ice cream?”
“No, thanks,” said Amy, her stomach still queasy.
“I want to show you something.” Miami walked to the old trailer closest to the Tilt-a-Whirl. His steel-toed boot crushed his cigarette, and he climbed up the wooden step ladder leading to the open trailer door. “C’mon.”
Amy followed. The trailer was dark and smelled a little like stale beer. Miami shook a wool blanket the color of a battleship and spread it onto the metal floor.
“Take a load off,” he said, closing the trailer door.
The blanket was rough against her bare legs. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, Amy could see scattered papers and coils of rope. His strong arm pulled her against him. “I really like you,” he whispered in her ear. His mouth pressed hard against hers. She tasted his smoky breath and felt his tongue. Amy knew about French kissing from Jessica and Lindsay, who had French kissed boys in their class. The baseball cap fell off. His rough hands pulled up her top, and his wiry moustache felt strange on her chest and belly. She felt her pants being pulled below her knees. He undid his belt and was on top of her, rocking, rocking, rocking. Like the Tilt-a-Whirl, it went on and on. He made sounds like a wounded animal in the woods. Finally, he rolled over and caught his breath. Amy lay on her back looking at the metal ceiling. Miami propped himself up on one elbow.
“You’re pretty good for someone without experience.”
“Thank you” she said. His cat eyes still did not look at her.
He stood up and fastened his jeans. “Gotta get back to work. The Tilt-a-Whirl waits for no one.” He laughed.
Amy pulled up her underwear and buttoned her shorts. They climbed down the shaky stairs, back into the glaring sunlight.
“Can you come back tonight?” asked Miami.
“I gotta babysit tonight. Mama works the late shift.”
“How about tomorrow? I’d really like another date with you. I really like you a lot.”
“Yeah. Sure. I like you a lot, too,” said Amy.
She walked back along the dirt road toward home. There was a rawness between her legs, and something wet ran down the inside of her thigh. Her flip flops stirred up little clouds of brown dust as she shuffled along slowly. She touched her earlobe. One of the tiny princess rosebuds was missing. It didn’t matter. Someone really liked her a lot.