A Kirkus Reviews Best Indie Book of 2018
A kiss is never just a kiss.
Le Grand’s Carnival Fantastic isn’t like other traveling circuses. It’s bound by a charm, held together by a centuries-old curse, that protects its members from ever growing older or getting hurt. Emmaline King is drawn to the circus like a moth to a flame…and unwittingly recruited into its folds by a mysterious teen boy whose kiss is as cold as ice.
Forced to travel through Texas as the new Girl in the Box, Emmaline is completely trapped. Breaking the curse seems like her only chance at freedom, but with no curse, there’s no charm, either—dooming everyone who calls the Carnival Fantastic home. Including the boy she’s afraid she’s falling for.
Everything—including his life—could end with just one kiss.
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|Publisher:||Entangled Publishing, LLC|
|File size:||2 MB|
|Age Range:||14 Years|
About the Author
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Apologies to the people who love it here, but Claremore, Oklahoma, might actually be a circle of hell. Not one of the horrible ones, for the people who do unspeakable things to cats, but definitely one of the places where people who cheat on their taxes go to live out their monotonous afterlives. The thing that sucks is Claremore is exactly where my mom has ditched my brothers and me for a year, leaving us to live with our dad while she's off in Guatemala, investigating this teeny tiny isolated village for a grant.
The only good thing about our abandonment is that Mom dropped us off just as Le Grand's Carnival Fantastic was ending its engagement on the outskirts of the city.
"Have you ever experienced the life-altering joygasm of the deep-fried Snickers bar?" Juliet bounds along beside me, same as she did when we were younger, her golden curls springing in time to her steps as we cross the dusty parking lot toward the carnival entrance.
It's a struggle to keep up, her long legs and general giddiness propelling her forward far better than any jet fuel could. The carnival sits in the middle of a field next to an abandoned mall. Graffiti cartoon animals run laps around the dilapidated building. Someone had written eat me in four-foot-tall letters near one of the entrances, only to have someone add an M at the beginning later. In another color, someone else had scrawled meat is murder, to which another artiste contributed, and it's delicious u dirty hippy. Charming.
"Jules, I can say with some certainty that never have I ever experienced a candy-induced joygasm."
"Then I can say with some certainty that you aren't living your best life."
Shame that once Le Grande's Carnival Fantastic blows town, there will pretty much be absolutely zero to do here that doesn't involve late-night visits to Walmart or football.
We follow the gathering crowds toward the ticket booth, funneling into the entrance beneath pennants made of sun-bleached calico, the patterns mere ghosts of their old selves. We're not even through the ticket gate and already I can smell sawdust and burned sugar. Shrieks of terror and joy stutter through the wind, mixing with the excited chatter of those waiting in line. Hand-painted boards taller than I am lead up to the ticket booth, each one featuring a different performer. A knife thrower done in stark black, white, and orange. Two golden girls standing atop a spotted horse, no saddle or reins to hold them. A boy and girl, near mirror reflections of the other, hovering over a crystal ball, dark shadows creeping in around them. The biggest belongs to a trio of tumblers who tangle their limbs together until they're one muscled mass of human impossibility. The sign is a boast, a dare, a promise — come and see these men and be amazed.
And I want to be amazed.
"Look!" I grab Jules by the wrist and tug her out of line to get a better look at the murals. I haven't painted since the move, and, more than that, nothing here has made me want to paint. "These are fantastic."
"They're all right, I guess," Jules says, taking her fingers from mine, her eyes already tracking toward the carnival entrance. "Do you think they'll have those giant turkey legs? I had one at the state fair and thought I was going to die. On. The. Spot."
Somewhere in the middle of her litany of praising poultry, I'm distracted by a flash of glitter and the soft clopping of hooves on concrete. A girl — slim and slight and decked out in what looks like a sequined bathing suit and fluffy bustle — pulls with all her might on the reins of the obstinate palomino before her. The thing is so huge and she is so tiny, it's like watching Tinkerbell trying to tow the Jolly Roger.
She lets out a holler somewhere between a yelp and a grunt of unending frustration. "Benjamin!"
A blond boy — Benjamin, I assume — sets the battered red tool kit he had been carrying down on the ground and wipes his palms on his jeans. His glasses slip down his nose when he straightens, the lights of the carnival reflecting across the lenses. He gently takes the reins from the girl, and it's impossible to ignore the way the tendons in his arms flex as he takes the giant horse under his control. He slowly strokes the animal's cheeks and I wonder if the words he says to the horse are as soft. But just then the horse's ears prick forward, and its feet dance in the dust.
"Hey, Whiskey," says an olive-skinned boy, approaching from the row of tents nearby. "You need help?" As he looks at Benjamin, his mouth twists into a mockery of a smile. "Looks like the gaucho can't handle a horse."
"Benjamin was handling this horse just fine until you showed up," the girl says with a snarl. I half expect to see fangs glinting in the fading light. As if to prove her point, the horse tries to rear, but Benjamin's grip is firm, and the horse doesn't break free. "Why don't you go find some old lady to charm out of her pension?"
The boy scowls, but as the horse snorts and tries to rear up once more, he walks away. As he leaves, he knocks into Benjamin's shoulder, muttering that word again, the one reeking of disdain even though it seems harmless enough to me. "Gaucho."
Benjamin doesn't respond, his fist still firmly wrapped around the horse's reins, but the girl is slowly turning a violent shade of pink. But before she can say a word, King Jerkwad turns, gifting a million-watt smile to the line of soon-to-be patrons as he approaches. He runs the last few feet, and as he's about to crash into a family with two chubby-cheeked toddlers, he launches into a backflip and lands kneeling before Jules and me. His chest puffs out and his arms spread wide. "The Fabulous Moretti Brothers are here to astound you! Come and find us inside!"
What an ass.
Juliet cocks her hip and rolls her lip between her teeth. Some predators roar to intimidate their prey. Juliet does this. "So, uh, if we were to want to find you later ..."
I glance back toward Benjamin and Whiskey, stifling a laugh when I see the glare the tiny redhead is shooting at the tumbler. Benjamin is still, somber. He catches me looking and gives me the tiniest shake of his head. A warning.
I don't question it. This Moretti brother might be fabulous, but I think we'll pass. I hook my arm around Juliet's and tug, leading her in the general direction of the ticket booth.
"Ugh, Emmaline!" Juliet says, her feet finally getting with the program. "That boy had serious make-out potential."
"Correction, that was a walking, talking douchebag wrapped up in a pretty package, and friends don't let friends make out with douchebags."
Juliet stretches to graze the tip of the bunting swaying above us with her fingers. "It's not like I wanted to bring him home to my dads and have a nondenominational commitment ceremony, I just wanted to kiss his brains out."
God, this girl. Laughter bubbles out of my chest, and it feels good, I feel good for the first time in weeks. I nudge Juliet toward the ticket booth.
When we reach the front of the line, a woman with coppery red hair in a messy topknot sells us our tickets. "Be sure to check out the equestrian stunt show," she says, her smile broad and bright. "The riders are my daughters."
We take our tickets and almost immediately give them up again, to an older man who tips his tattered newsboy as we enter the carnival. The moment we cross the perimeter, we're awash in golden light and popcorn-scented air. Shrieks of delight fill the night, mingling with Juliet's mile-a-minute chatter about where she might find a deep-fried anything.
Red flashes before me, and it takes my eyes a second to realize it's a rose. A boy holds the flower so close its petals tickle my chin. His face is painted white, with rosy circles dotting his pale cheeks and dark powder shaping his eyebrows into wry arches. His glossy black hair has been styled into a plastic-y, slick wave that makes me think of a twenties soda jerk. When he grins, his teeth are all perfect and white. "Pretty flower for a pretty lady."
A flush colors my cheeks. "Oh! I couldn't." The rose is lush and perfect, so big it looks artificial, but there's no way to fake the heavenly scent coming off it.
But the boy's grin widens, and then he's pressing the stem into my hand. "I insist. You can pay me back by bringing your family to visit my booth later."
"Oh," I say, "it's just us."
The boy's grin turns wolfish. "Us?"
I whirl, my brain finally realizing that if Juliet had been behind me, there's no way she'd have let the boy's words from before go without comment. The crowd swirls around me — families and some people I vaguely recognize from school — but no Jules. "My friend is here ... somewhere."
The boy's bright white teeth flash in the rapidly diminishing light. "Of course she is. When you find her"— he presses something small and cold into my palm —"come and see me."
I glance at my hand. It's just a quarter, shiny enough to reflect the dancing lights from a nearby booth off its surface. Why on earth would he give me a quarter? I shove the coin into my jeans pocket and am about to ask him that very question, but he's already gone.
The roll of cash in my pocket thumps against my leg as I jog across the yard. I counted it three times to be sure, and if I'm right, then Marcel and I finally have enough money to leave this carnival for good.
The evening is crisp and cool and the kind of bleak that makes the world seem like everything is washed over with gray. But the backyard crackles with life. Trailers creak as other roustabouts — those like me who work in the background, making it easier for the performers to seamlessly weave their magic — wearily climb into them, eager to catch a quick meal and a little rest before going back out to help clean up the grounds after the patrons are gone. Happy shouts of greeting echo up and down the rows of trailers as the performers make their way toward the grounds, ready for the first shows of the night, and the yips and grunts of Mrs. Potter's dogs make a strange layer of sound hanging in the air.
It's home for all of them, but not the kind of home I ever wanted for myself.
Even though we've only been here two weeks, the pathways on the grounds have been made flat by dozens and dozens of feet. As I wind my way through the yard, I tick a few items off my to-do list — checking the wiring on the neon ice cream sign affixed to one of the outermost booths, fixing the awning on Lars's trailer. I'm about to call it quits when I see Lorenzo, the youngest Moretti tumbler, horsing around a trash can fire with a new carnival recruit whose name is Mikey, I think. If I run into the last Moretti brother, Antonio, after this, then I'll have concrete proof that bad things come in threes.
"Do you trust me or not?" Lorenzo asks. The new guy's cheeks are flushed pink from the fire, and the bright flames flicker in his wide, wet eyes as he holds one hand over the trash can. "Come on. We've all done it. It's like a rite of passage!"
I dart toward them and yank the new guy's hand back. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" The heat from the fire wafts over me, making my skin feel as though it's being stretched too tight.
"But the charm would have protected me." The new guy points a wavering finger toward Lorenzo. "He said so."
Anger threatens to sharpen the edges of all my words, so when I speak, I try my damnedest to be calm. "That is not how it works. The charm keeps you safe as you work, makes sure you don't trip when you perform, and keeps us healthy, keeps us young. It does not miraculously keep your skin from burning to a crisp when you purposefully shove your hand into a fire."
"Maybe," Lorenzo says, the word drawn out all long and lazy, "the charm worked by having you come along." The grin he gives me makes it perfectly clear he doesn't believe a word he's saying.
My teeth grind. Did this really just happen? Did I just stop a guy from putting his hand into a fire? I have no idea why Leslie welcomed some stupid kid naive enough to be fooled into almost burning off his own hand into the fold, but she must have seen something special in him. "That isn't how it works. Don't purposefully try to hurt yourself." The trash can lid lays on the ground at our feet, and I slam it down, smothering the flames. "And don't listen to anyone with the last name Moretti. Now go."
The new guy shoots a nervous glance at both of us but walks away quickly. Smartest decision he's made all day. "Leave the new people alone," I say.
"What do you care? You're not really one of us."
Anger flares, hot and bright in my gut. Just because I haven't been with the carnival all my life and just because my family doesn't have a mile-long list of carnivals or circuses we've worked for, I don't belong. "Been here a lot longer than you have."
Lorenzo smiles, and he has to know he's hit a nerve. "Still doesn't mean you belong here. You or your bitch of a mother."
My fingers twitch into fists, but before I do anything stupid, he's gone. As he makes his way down the aisle, chatting easily with passersby, the anger inside me continues to simmer. It's not my fault the Morettis couldn't get their father a job with the carnival because my mom already holds the master carpenter position. And it's not my fault they're arrogant pricks who think the world should be handed to them on a platter because they bring in tons of paying customers. But soon, very soon, I won't have to put up with shit like this.
A shriek of laughter pierces through my anger. I peer between two trailers and catch a glimpse of a pair of girls — a blonde doubled over in laughter and her dark-haired friend, who looks on with some mix of pride at having made someone else laugh so hard and disbelief that anyone actually could laugh that hard. As she tugs on the other girl's arm, trying to get her to move along, I realize this is the girl I'd seen earlier, the one whose blush lit up her pale skin like sunlight through a flower petal. The blond girl straightens, and as she does, she gives her friend a swift smack on the ass, which sets the both of them giggling. The anger I'd held in my chest doesn't completely dissolve, but it does loosen its hold as I watch the girls walk away.
Well. I guess the carnival isn't all bad.
Gin Connelly perches delicately on a crate next to the rusting Gran Torino Marcel and I bought, already in the glittering costume she'll wear for her shows this evening. Beside her is an origami configuration of jutting elbows and long torso as my best friend, Marcel, strains to reach a hidden part of the engine block of our piece-of-junk clunker.
I kick at a raggedy length of rubber on the ground, and as it tumbles to a stop at her bare feet, Gin snaps to attention. "Oh hell," she says, grabbing Marcel's wrist to look at his watch. At her touch, he startles, nearly knocking his head into the propped-open hood of the car. "I'm late for my first show. I'll get up with you early in the morning to practice our new routine, okay?"
She's up and off in a flurry of sparkles, jogging down the pathway between trailers, the crowd parting to let her through. Marcel absently rubs at the smears of grease marring his dark skin with an equally greasy rag, oblivious to the fact that all he's doing is spreading the gunk around.
"Hey, man," he says, only managing to draw his gaze to me once she's out of sight. He's got it so bad for Gin that I can't even be mad at him for ignoring me till now. "Hop in and turn her on. Let's see if I got rid of that squealing sound."
The ever-present smell of gasoline hits me as I slide into the driver's seat. At first, starting the car was a gentle and precise dance of pumping the gas, turning the key, listening, knowing when to back off and when to push harder to get the damned thing to turn over without flooding, but now all it takes is a simple turn of my wrist.
Our parents had questioned the need to buy the thing in the first place. What traveling did we do, outside of the carnival? The car was a gas-guzzler, couldn't we see that? But neither Marcel's parents nor my mother thought to ask the real reason behind our purchase — are you planning to leave us?
Excerpted from "By A Charm & A Curse"
Copyright © 2018 Jaime Questell.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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