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The music beat hard against Joy's ribs. She could feel the rhythm in her chest and the bass in her teeth. The Carousel spun slowly, crammed with mirrors and frantic dancers. It was dark. It was light. It was dark. It was light. Joy felt the music call to her, dizzying and loud.
"Isn't this great?" Monica shouted next to Joy's ear. They stood just inside the nimbus of carnival lights and techno grind. Behind them, the Tilt-A-Whirl roared.
Joy nodded. "It's wild!"
"Well, come on, wild child! Time for fun."
Monica loved fun. And Joy loved her for it. Despite the craziness of the past year, Monica had stuck by her, so even if Joy wasn't too sure about going to the spring fair among several dozen rabid cool-hunters prowling the Carousel on the Green, she wasn't about to ruin it. Instead of ballroom dancing classes or community theater-in-the-round, the Carousel was attempting to become Glendale's hottest indoor/outdoor scene. People pumped their fists in the air and smartphones caught the rave on glowing screens. Joy checked hers for the time.
"Well, fun better get started. Dad's only letting me stay out till eleven."
Monica snorted and smoothed the edges of her razor-cut bob. "You'd think you were the one who skipped out." Then she winced and whispered, "Sorry."
Joy shrugged. "'S'okay."
Lots of parents split after their last kid went off to college. Mom could've waited two years before running off to L.A., but by then, her twenty-six-year-old graphic artist, Doug, might have been considered too old for a cougar like her. As she'd tried to explain before she left, she had "needs." The memory still brought an embarrassed ache, but no tears. Joy had cried herself out months ago. Nowadays, she half expected Mom to reappear when her boy-toy turned thirty.
"Come on." Monica tugged Joy up the incline. "Party's wasting!"
They held hands and jumped onto the crowded dance floor. The old hardwood shivered, rotating slowly on merry-go-round gears. The Carousel was packed, but Monica nabbed a spot beneath the peeling brass ringthe only original piece left after the horses had been auctioned off. Joy edged toward the speakers as the Carousel turned. The town fair fell into purple shadow rimmed in fairy lights.
Joy moved her hips and shoulders, enjoying the thump of the music. Closing her eyes, she felt strangers' laughter bubble up inside her as if it were her own and she popped her heels to the beat. Her ponytail brushed the back of her neck, alternately sticky and cool. Hands ringed in glow bracelets and Under 18 wristbands clutched empty cotton-candy cones and miniature teddy bears. The air smelled of hot sugar, cooking oil and sweat. Distant roller coaster screams echoed somewhere out in the glow of a thousand twinkling carnival lights. It was like swimming in a dreamworld, floating in noise.
Joy wound her long arms over her head, stretching her spine. Her hipster jeans hung loose. She'd gotten a lot thinner since Mom left, her abs tight under stretched skin. Mom would have noticed and made her change clothes. The thought brought Joy dropping back to earth, feeling heavy and solid as she sank into her shoes.
No! This was not going to be like last year. Those days had been too long and the house too quiet. She'd become a total stranger. She was officially over it. This was spring, a new beginning in a brand-new year. This year, things were going to change.
Joy checked her posture and her attitude as she spun on the shifting floor. She shuffled toward Monica, who had lightly rebuffed some blond boy and was now glancing over her shoulder at the guy on her left. Joy wasn't surprised. Monica liked jocks. Or, as she liked to put it, "big strapping jocks," and Mr. Wide Shouldered Crew Cut in Tight Pants definitely fit her type.
Joy pushed away some stray hand. The floor chugged with the beat.
"Chocolate-vanilla swirl?" Joy shouted.
Monica raised her hands and whooped, "Oh, yeah!"
Monica was more the color of classic grand pianos than chocolate ice cream, but she was always game for showing off. Linking fingers, the two of them slowly undulated their hips, bending lower and lower as they sank to their knees, hanging on to one another for support and inching back up the same way, laughing. They got some applause and even a few appreciative hollers. Joy grinned. Eleven years of gymnastics came in handy once in a while. It'd been over eight months since she'd quit, but she missed it. She missed it like laughing. She missed it like this.
They slapped high-fives before going solo. Monica made her play for Mr. Wide, his large hands sliding down onto her hips. She nodded to Joy and laughed, the black lights on the undercarriage making her eyes and teeth glow an unappetizing purple. It made Joy secretly want a breath mint.
Joy turned away, gazing out at the crowd. Flashes of color and jerky movements made everybody look strangely the sameno one was boy or girl, black or white, freshman or senior. They were all one big glom. Joy usually avoided the Carousel's Under 18 scene, but Monica had said that there was a new DJ and Joy had to admit that he was really good. The guy was backlit in the gutted central pillar filled with concert notices and band stickers, the giant headphones over his ears making it look like he wore a Viking helmet. Her eyes skipped over faces, trying not to linger too long. She didn't want companyshe just wanted to dance and forget about Mom and Dad and her brother, Stef, away at U Penn.
She turned a one-eighty, swishing her fingers as the music switched over. Joy lifted her face to the ceiling and watched the colored bands of pink and green spin. She turned counterclockwise, making herself dizzy. Searing neon afterimages blinked in her brain. That's when she saw the all-black eyes.
At first, she thought it was a trick of the light, but everyone else's eyes had that purplish glow while these stayed flat-shadow. Joy stopped, confused.
A lean guy with spiky hair stared into the crowd with his strange, dark eyes. Shaggy bangs fell forward into his face, the back cut close behind his ears and neck. The girl next to him could have been his twinshorter, with a heart-shaped face, matching hair and whiteless eyes. They stood on the edge of the dance floor, looking like black thistles against a field of psychedelic blooms.
Goths, Joy figured, with freaky contacts.
He stared, unblinking. His eyes swallowed everything. And when they found her, it felt like falling.
The Carousel turned, but those eyes stayed with her.
Joy adjusted her feet and tried to put the boy out of her mind. The music tracks dovetailed and the view slowly changed. Lightbox signs hawked caramel apples and funnel cakes. Crayon-colored chair swings spun in and out of sight. Monica had disappeared somewhere with Mr. Wide. The music dipped and surfaced, vocals skating up and down scales. Joy's eyes flicked to the mirrors, the black lights, the brass ring, but an itch kept pulling her gaze over her shoulder. The platform circled, and she saw him again through a sea of indigo limbs.
He stared at her. Joy glanced away, pretending not to notice. She rotated in place, rolling her hips slowly as the floor crept clockwise, not realizing that she was flirting until she'd circled beyond his sight.
Joy considered him from the safe zone behind the DJ booth. The guy's shirt looked expensive and his vibe was lurkish, intense. He had a sort of animal grace, even standing still, and his serious expression was a sharp contrast to his pretty, boyish face. On the next pass, she wondered if he'd still be there, staring at her.
He was. But it wasn't a nice stare.
Joy's stomach dropped as he headed straight toward her. She looked down at her shoes, a hot, awkward prickle crawling over her cheeks. He wasn't dancing his way closer or being in any way subtlehe was marching right at her, stepping smoothly onto the rotating platform and pushing gently but firmly through the crowd. His attention was relentless. Joy backed farther into the throng.
She scanned the club for Monica, feeling those eyes on the back of her neck. She was afraid to turn around. Didn't this break some sort of dance floor etiquette? If Joy ignored him, maybe he'd get the hint. But she really wanted backup.
Joy was surprised that his soft voice cut so cleanly through the noise. It didn't sound as if he'd shouted, and she was too surprised to pretend she hadn't heard him.
He was within arm's reachdancing distancebut he wasn't dancing. His thistle sister stood as close to him as static cling.
Joy closed her eyes, feigning boredom. She'd gotten more details in that second brief glimpse: smoky shirt, dark pants, heavy chain dangling to his back pocketso Goth! Joy projected a pointedly obvious no.
"Hey, you," he said again in the simple way that sliced through sound. Joy glared at him. She didn't like to be rude, but she would if she had to. She didn't need this. She kept her arms moving, trying to keep things casual. Colored lights flashed off tent tops, stuffed animals and sweaty faces, making it impossible to see where he was looking with those blacked-out eyes.
He took a step closer. Joy smelled rain on the breeze.
"You can see me?" he asked.
Joy stopped dancing at the patently stupid question. "Yeah. Why?"
A strange look passed over his face, determination that looked like regret. His arm rose at the shoulder, snaking out in a short burst of speed. Bright lights licked the edge of something sharp in his hand. Joy flinched and fell down hard. She skidded on the floor and banged against knees.
Cupping a hand to her eye, she inhaled a scream, but it stuck in her chest. What had just happened? There'd been a flash. It was bright. Had he cut her? Was she bleeding? People backed away. The floor kept turning. Joy could feel it shudder.
Monica appeared beside her. "You okay?" she gasped, voicing the panic Joy was just starting to feel. "What happened? Joy?"
Her eye hurt. A lot. Every time she tried to look up, she blinked rapidly over a pinprick of pain. It felt like a splinter.
Through the blur, Joy saw the Goth girl's hand bright against her brother's shirt, shoving him back into the crowd. Her voice had that same slicing clarity.
"Well, now you've done it."
Joy wanted to get up and grab them, but the twinge in her eye and an icy fear pinned her to the floor. Slippery tears wet her palm.
"He cut me!" Joy said in accusation and disbelief. Her words caught fire to those nearby, passing quickly from person to person in the breathy excitement of a night on the Green gone bad. Staffers descended. Rent-a-cops were called. There were shouts to remain calm, shut off the music, man the gates, but by the time any of it happened, the two Goth kids were gone.
Dad drove her home from the E.R. with a neat patch over one eye and a bottle of numbing drops in her hand. The scratch on her cornea was clean, but kept flipping open, so the nurse had taped her eyelid shut. Joy's pleas to stay home for the next three to five days had not met with success. There was a text from Monica and a message from Mom. Dad hadn't called her, had he? Joy frowned and shut off her phone.
"I'm glad Monica called," her dad said. "It was the right thing to do." Joy didn't say anything as she gazed out the window. There was a long pause. "You sure you weren't drinking?"
"Dad, Monica's the treasurer of S.A.D.D., for Pete's sakes. She's like the poster girl for prevention," Joy said. "Besides, no alcohol at Under 18 Nights." She rubbed her eye patch.
"Stop that," he chided.
Joy dropped her hand. She and Monica had agreed not to say anything about what had really happened. Monica hadn't actually seen the guy and if Dad found out, he'd never let Joy out of the house again. Their story was that something had dropped from the ceiling, but it didn't explain the shaky feeling that had stayed with her hours later.
Like looking into those all-black eyes.
She picked at the tape with her fingernail. "It'll take me forever to do my homework," she complained.
"Fortunately, you have the whole weekend to do it," he said. "It's still Friday night" he glanced at the clock "well, Saturday morning, and there's plenty of time. Just do a little bit every few hours." He glanced left and right quickly as he ran a yellow light. "If you have a test, I could quiz you."
"No tests," Joy said. "But this totally blows my weekend."
He frowned. "You had plans this weekend?"
She didn't, but he didn't have to sound so surprised. She might have had plans if she'd had a life.
Dad seemed to sense that he'd stepped in it. "How about after the first pass at your homework, I take you to the mall for ice cream?"
Joy grimaced. "Looking like this?" She pointed at her face. "No, thanks."
Her dad sighed and kneaded the steering wheel. "O-kay," he said. "How about thisyou invite Monica over since she's seen you already, and I'll pick up a pizza and then vacate the house? Girls' night in and Dad's gone out?" Joy tried not to brood over her father's idea that the greatest gift to her was being absent. She twiddled the eyedrops in her lap.
"That is my final offer," he added.
"All right, fine," Joy said.
"All right," her father agreed. "Fine."
Joy turned her head fully to study his balding profile in the window. The streetlights etched the worry around his eyes and the pinch of his lower lip. She sighed against the headrest. He was trying so hard. Neither of them were good at the reaching-out thing; they'd left that stuff up to Mom. But Mom was gone, and Stefan was at college, and everything had changed. Dad was the only original piece of her family she had left. Joy needed him to be the one thing that stayed.
She smiled. "Thanks, Dad."
He smiled back.
Not only was there pizza, but her father had left a carton of ice cream in the freezer with a Post-it note that said Study Break. Picking out the chocolate chips while dancing to satellite radio, Joy had to admit that Dad wasn't half-bad at spoiling her. She'd heard that she could expect it now that her folks were officially divorced, but this was the first time it had tasted like victory instead of leftover Chinese takeout. To Dad, dessert was love, or the next best thing. Every time he bought her a treat, Joy felt obliged to have some right away. It was Dad's way of saying "I love you" and her way of saying that she knew.
Fortunately, she liked ice creamunfortunately, not mint chocolate chip. Mom would've known that. Stefan was the one who liked chips. Joy sighed as she made a little wet stack of brown rectangles for her brother, who wasn't there. Mom was gone, Stef was gone, but she still had ice cream and pizza and Monica. Hooray!
Joy vaulted over the couch and landed smoothly on the cushions, repositioning herself for maximum pillow access. There were a lot worse things than hanging with Monica at home watching classic chick flicks. Having Dad stick around while they watched When Harry Met Sally came to mind. She was actually glad that he was going out. He'd been haunting the house ever since the divorce papers were signed.
"I'm off," Dad called from the hallway with a jingle of keys.
"Night, Dad," Joy said, bouncing her feet in time to the music. She waved her mismatched blue polka-dot and pink-and-purple socks. "Have fun."
"You, too," he said. "Emergency numbers are on the door."
"And don't be afraid to call the cell."
Joy leaned back and enunciated pointedly: "Good. Night.
"Okay, okay, I'm going." His hand rested on the doorknob. "Call me if you need anything."
"Dad!" she warned. "Bye!"
The door clicked closed. Gone.