The Mouse Races

Image © Callie Hirsch. All Rights Reserved.

She lost the children almost as soon as they got there. They burst through the turnstile and took off, whooping and shrieking like banshees. Headed for the ghost train, Alice assumed. They’d been talking about riding the Creepy Cricket since the carnival had set up by the pier last Tuesday. She knew she should follow, make some pretense of keeping an eye on them, but instead she sat beside a tiny carousel that featured an assortment of luminous grinning snails.

She closed her eyes, sun dappling her face through a pitch pine tree. The waft of popcorn and fug of a diesel generator reminded her of the fair back home, when they set up during the Agricultural Show. Maybe still did. Nobody who knew Alice now would be surprised she’d been a timid child—afraid of the chairy-planes, terrified of being bumped on the midget racers, but she remembered the Show fondly. Once she’d won a pound on the mouse race. “You’ve an eye for the form,” her father had said approvingly. But Mouse 23’s winning streak was the last time a gamble had paid off.

She opened her eyes and watched a tall woman in worn overalls move deftly between the glowing snails, checking each child was buckled in.

Alice rose stiffly and smoothed down her crumpled skirt. She walked past the Battling Beetles bumper cars, the Hornet’s Frenzy tilt-a-whirl, the Water Beetle flume. In towns like this, any attraction brought in crowds for a day or two.

She saw the children being hurtled through the air on some kind of robotic grasshopper. Charles had his mouth open, screeching with delighted fear, while Jimmy’s mouth and eyes were clamped shut. The flashing pinks, blues and greens of the ride were faint against the late afternoon sky. The music crashed, drowning out the ocean. The sun was dipping. It would soon be time to scoop the boys home, then retire to her tomb of a suite downstairs until tomorrow.

She bought herself coffee at a stand shaped like an overweight caterpillar. Her paper cup was handed out through the caterpillar’s substantial midriff. She let it cool on a purple plastic mushroom.

She watched the woman from the carousel, going between midway booths. The boys ran up and demanded more money. Alice doled it out and they pelted away to the Tarantula Den to hurl things at smiling spiders.

Alice knew the children loved her but hated having her trail after them. The boys wouldn’t need her much longer. Already didn’t need her. The family had outgrown her.

“Those your boys?” It was the woman from the carousel.

Alice shook her head. “Just the nanny.” She studied the woman’s face. “How does a carnival keep going with all the video games and distractions they have now?”

“How does anyone keep going?”

Alice shrugged.

The woman looked at her. “I always focused on the going. Tomorrow, we pack up and go again.”

Alice watched the woman walk away between the bumper cars and the tilt-a-whirl. She thought about following her, tapping her on the shoulder, asking where she was going tomorrow, how it felt to stay in motion.

Alice thought about the distance between here and home—vague, fuzzy, impossible—all the way on the other side of the Atlantic.

Maybe Alice had used up all her going with that one huge jump getting here. Or maybe it was the landing she couldn’t get right. Fifteen years and she still hadn’t found her feet.

Alice walked through the fair, past the tilt-a-whirl and the bumper cars, past the Creepy Cricket and the water flume. She reached the edge of the carnival where the shrieks and yelps quieted to a distant swell and rides gave way to struts, scaffolding and hunks of machinery. Trailers clustered, numbers painted on their doors. The woman in overalls climbed the steps and disappeared inside one.

The door clicked closed behind her, its orange number 23 painted bright on green.

Alice followed her up the steps.

Aefa Mulholland was born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland and now lives in Toronto with her girlfriend, three cats and one squirrel. She has worked with broadcasters and publications from The Irish Times and The Travel Channel to The Advocate and Curve. As a journalist, Aefa has been published or broadcast on four continents, writing or presenting on subjects from mule racing in Montana to the hazards of bingo in Glasgow. She has just finished her first novel, about a cuckoo who steals human hearts.

Appears In

Issue 13

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