Extraordinary (Rough Passages)
Here's the first (unproofed) scene of my short piece titled EXTRAORDINARY.
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Part 1: A Special Day
Valerie loved the carnival. Every April, it set up in the Indio city park for one magic week, and every year, her birthday fell on one of those days. The day she turned forty-two, she got to watch the carnival come to life while she ran all the critical errands she’d been postponing until she had a day free from both jobs.
Partially-constructed machinery rose against the sunlit Santa Rosa mountains like dinosaur skeletons as she drove to the DMV. The rides were running by the time she passed on the way back. Piles of canvas and wood became a colorful lane of gaming booths and exhibits between her trip to the gynecologist and the one to the Public Safety Clinic where she took her R-factor test.
The sight of the midway coming together made her so happy that she barely felt the usual twinge of nervousness as her blood was drawn. Only one in every few thousand came up positive for rollover these days. She was more likely to get hit by a truck than end up turning into a monster.
The clinic nurse wanted to make another appointment to go over the results and speak with a doctor, but Valerie signed the release forms to get a letter instead. She didn’t have time for a third lecture about preparing for the worst and planning for her family’s future. She’d heard the speech twice already, and she’d used up all her favors to get this time off. The restaurant and the diner always overlapped, and when they didn’t, her mother’s physical therapy filled the gaps.
If she was unlucky enough to roll, then Public Safety would come to her, the way they’d taken away a customer at the restaurant one night a few months earlier. The poor man’s friends ran out the door when their table started icing over, and he sat there looking terrified while things turned white and crumbled all around him. He’d cried, when the retrieval team took him away.
Valerie turned up the car stereo to drown out the memory of those whimpers. She didn’t have time to worry about things that wouldn’t happen. She still had to pick up groceries for the week and drop off bills at the post office before she could pick up her mother and the boys and go have fun.
By the time she got her family to the park, the sun was down, and the line for tickets stretched down the block. Not even the long wait with two rambunctious toddlers could dampen her spirits. The tinny music and the scent of caramel corn always took her back to a happy time when she could be dazzled by bright lights and a little glitter.
Gary and Johnny caught her infectious enthusiasm and spent long minutes deciding which concession stands to visit, and then they had a serious discussion on the relative merits of rainbow-braided lollipops and pastel-tinted cotton candy. Sometimes she saw their father’s obsessive anger in them and worried, but moments like this were ones she wished would last forever.
It didn’t last. Of course it didn’t.
Gary fell headlong on the woodchip path between the concession area and the aisles of gaming booths. He scraped both his knees and ruined his new jeans, and while Valerie was distracted by his tears and the necessary cleanup, Johnny ate his brother’s cotton candy as well as his own. Five minutes after that, Valerie was holding Johnny over a trash barrel while he vomited it all back up.
Valerie wiped his face and gave him a sip of her slushie, trying hard to ignore the fact that her own new clothes were now wet with tears, snot and spatters of vomit. Then she embraced Johnny and glared at her mother over his shoulder. “You could’ve told me he was stuffing it all down his throat.”
Mom leaned on her walker and sniffed in disapproval. "This way, the greedy little pig learned his lesson. He’ll thank you for it later. You’re too soft on them.”
Valerie held her breath so that she would not say, “And maybe if you’d been a little softer with me, I wouldn’t be raising two boys alone while I work two jobs to pay off debts run up by my abusive addict ex-husband.” If Mom heard all that, she would cry, so all Valerie said was, “Mom, please. Not tonight.”
Then she looked around at the hustle and bustle and blinked back her own tears. Barkers shouted, music played, and people strolled past on all sides, politely ignoring the family tension in their midst. Tent walls swayed in the hot breeze, the air was dusty and thick with grease, and flashing lit rides spun and swooped overhead like looming monsters in the twilight.
It was perfect, except that her heart was full of acid sadness, and she ached for all the years she’d wasted trying to be a good child and then a good wife instead of a real person. For all she knew, she’d wasted her whole life. If her R-test came back positive, this might be her last proper carnival ever, at least as a free woman.
She shoved the morbid thought away. Rollover wasn’t a death sentence. Not these days. A lot of factor-positive people led full, normal lives. She got a lot of tips from them, when the other servers whispered “Poz” to each other and pretended they were too busy to take the tables.
Besides, it wasn’t going to happen to her.
A hawker for one of the game booths leaned over his counter and waved, catching her eye. “How about a free game for the kiddos?” he called out. A gold tooth flashed in his scruffy beard, and he tipped the velvet top hat on his shaggy dark hair. “And one for their beautiful mother.”
Mom snorted. “He must be blind.”
The insult poked right through Valerie’s temper and let the all sourness drain out.
“Well, Mom,” she said, “People do say I look just like you.”
They had looked alike once, before age hunched Mom’s spine and shriveled her skin, before the accident broke her hip and bed rest added pounds to her body. They were both big women, with thick arms and thicker thighs, and the blonde in their hair came from the same bottles these days. Valerie smirked at her mother’s shocked expression, then took her sons by the hand. “Come on, guys. This will be fun.”
The boys walked fast and bouncy. The words free and fun were enough to make them forget their small tragedies, and they left Mom, her poisonous tongue and her walker far behind. Valerie didn’t care if she ever caught up, but of course she did. The nasty comment went unremarked; things ignored ceased to exist. That was Mom’s way. They spent a lot of evenings not speaking to each other.
The boys tossed balls at painted boats floating in tubs of moving water, and Valerie chatted with the man running the game. He had a polished patter and a rough, gritty charm. Valerie paid for two more games after the first and considered it a fair bargain. The harmless flirting made her feel alive again.
“Bah,” Mom said. “Will you look at that? Back in my day, the freaks stayed in the sideshow tents. Disgusting.”
The boys both turned, eyes gleaming with curiosity, and so Valerie turned too. Her stomach knotted up. She had a bad feeling that she knew what she would see.
Two women in gray and black Department of Public Safety uniforms stood out from the rest of the crowd passing by. They weren’t just DPS employees. They were also visibly R-positive rollovers. One of them had purple hair swept back in a braid that went down to her waist, while the other had very short black hair, spiny lumps where most people had ears, and—
Gary crowed with laughter and shouted, “Look, Mama, he’s all scaly.”
“And a tail!” Johnny said even louder. “He has a tail coming out of his pants. I want a tail, Mommy!”
Valerie’s heart started to beat fast, and she said the first thing that came to mind. “She, sweeties. She has scales. Hush, please. Use your Sunday voices.”
“I WANT A TAIL,” Johnny bellowed.
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“I WANT A TAIL,” Johnny bellowed.