Chapter 1: Carnival

"Samantha, wait," you say to the girl in front of you. She looks up from the rifle, moving a dirty-blonde strand of hair from her emerald eyes, a questioning look on her face. "Aim with the sights skewed a little to the left." The carnival worker's expression clouds over at your suggestion. Samantha takes a deep breath and shoots. The BB hits the paper star. "Yes!" Samantha exclaims before throwing her arms around your neck in a victory hug. "Nice shooting," says the carnival worker, a forced smile upon his face. "Name your prize, young lady."

A few minutes later the two of you walk through the main walkway of the carnival, Samantha carrying an oversized stuffed panda bear. "How'd you know?" she asks. You shrug in reply. "Just a lucky guess." She returns your half-smile and the two of you continue walking. A tower drop ride called "The Fallen Angel" catches your eye, and you stop to look at the neon blue angel wings decorating the Sans-Serif font. You take a deep breath and close your eyes. A warm breeze lightly brushes your face, causing your hair to tickle your forehead. The carnival's neon lights linger in reversed colors on the back of your eyelids.

How did you know? You don't know if it was something you saw, maybe picked up subconsciously, like the barrel being slightly bent; or maybe something you felt, like a change in the wind. No. That can't be it, you think. The sights were rigged. That's the only explanation. But again, how could you have known? Another mystery in a long line of them stretching back as far as you can remember.

"Hey!" Samantha's cheery voice interrupts your brooding. "Let's ride the Ferris wheel." She grabs your hand and takes off running, dragging you along, before you could even vocalize a reply. As the two of you approach it, the brightly lit Ferris wheel looks like an alien space craft. The late sunset sky, slowly merging from a dull orange-pink near the horizon to turquoise and then to deep midnight blue, makes the neon lights on the Ferris wheel appear like brighter, closer stars. But as beautiful as it looks, it also carries an aura of loneliness, separated from the rest of the carnival so high up in the sky.

The ride is smooth and has a soppy feel to it. Chicago's "You're the Inspiration" blares from the PA system, a cheesy love song if there ever was one. Samantha holds onto you tightly, resting her head on your chest and shoulder, her body snugly tucked within your arms. You can smell the sweetness of her hair as the wind whips it into your face. You distractedly kiss her head and look down below. Up so high in the air, the people on the ground seem distant; the neon colors somewhat muted. Samantha wiggles closer into your arms. You can feel her breathe as she lets out a contented sigh. She was a beautiful girl, her dirty blonde hair framing large, expressive facial features. Her body pressed against yours should have given you that warm feeling of Lovers' Butterflies, but the night felt oppressive in its loneliness to you, and that feeling was seeping deep into your bones like cold liquid mercury. How do I always know, you think, as the ride ends and the two of you walk off. What the hell is wrong with me?

Eventually your introspection is cut off by the reality of social expectations. Samantha, smiling up at you as brightly as ever, has asked you to take the giant panda bear to her car while she uses the restroom, and then for you to get her purse so she can buy more tickets for rides and games; however you suspect she has some surprise waiting for you in her car. Maybe the latest video game. It's your anniversary after all, and she's always playing little games with things like this.

Just as you're approaching the gate you see a small angel statue holding a metal plate. Why on earth it would be there is beyond you, but the pleading, distressed facial expression holds your attention. Definitely not the kind of statue you'd expect at a carnival. You shake your head. It's weird, but you have to get to the car, lest you awaken Samantha's wrath.

You turn toward the exit to the parking lot.