Fall Fair

 SHE WAS THE ONLY PATCH of stillness on the planet, to Dion, the dark-haired girl sitting on the far wing of the bleachers, second to lowest tier, watching the band play.

She wasn’t alone, surrounded by people on all sides, but she was a break in the pattern that had caught his eye, her solidity and forward gaze, while all around her the crowd pitched and bobbed in response to the music, volume up so high it vibrated the blood in his veins. Clouds drove across the dimming skies and the lights from the fairground beyond flickered and twirled. People danced on the grassy patch in front of the stage, and above them the Rockabilly Princess leaned into the mic to sing the bouncy refrain. Something about small change and love letters. Much of the crowd sang along.

Seated next to Dion, high up on the bleachers, Penny sang along too, loudly and not so well, arms lifted high to clap. Dion didn’t sing or cheer but tried to clap his hands to the beat now and then, following procedure. Proof that he was as present as anyone. He’d come out tonight determined not to brood or drift . He worked on listening to the music, and it was lively and noisy, but it really wasn’t great, and he couldn’t stay with it. First his ears went out of sync, then his eyes. He checked Penny’s profile, saw that she looked happy, then surveyed the crowd and saw more than heard the chaos and motion, all but the dark-haired girl down there who sat perfectly still, her attention fixed on the band, the singer, the guitar player. Unlike Dion, she was completely in sync. Just another fan, he decided. But one of the silent ones.

He looked down and sideways at the pink denim of Penny’s skinny, pumping knees, but the thoughts kept ticking, not in words but little kicks of anxiety. It was all part of the healing process, this constant kicking, ticking, and going in circles, and now he was at it again, watching the girl down there. She was native, he was sure of it, while most of the fairgoers were white. And there was something else that set her apart: baggage. Next to her he could just see the hump of some kind of bag, a large backpack or duff el, which said that maybe she was just passing through, a drifter. From his position seven tiers up he could see little of her face, only the full curve of her cheek. Her long hair was loose and whipping in the breeze. Nothing special about her, a woman in her twenties, probably, on the heavy side, in faded jeans, and in spite of the chill just an ice-blue T-shirt.

He told himself he wasn’t obsessing, just whiling away the time as he sat through a long stretch of rockabilly noise he couldn’t tune in on. Maybe it was a good thing, a throwback to better days, when it had been his job to analyze situations, pull out the anomalies and turn them over till he had it figured out. He frowned down at the dark-haired girl. When she turned and glanced up his way, he felt caught out and flicked his gaze away, back to Fling.

The pop and boom of the monster speakers frayed his nerves, along with Penny’s pumping knees and the sea-like motion of the crowd. The song came to an abrupt end, there was another round of applause, and in the lull he could breathe easier, like coming up for air. As the band fussed with their instruments, gearing up for the next assault, Penny touched his arm, got his attention, and pointed at the heavy bank of clouds moving in over the mountains. “Snow’s coming, I can smell it in the air.”

She said it like it was a good thing. He glanced at the heavens and saw them hung with some kind of floating debris catching the last of the sunlight. The only smells he could pick out from the general fairground pong were cow dung and candyfloss, and the occasional whiff of suntan lotion and sweat.

What did snow smell like? What did it feel like? How would he survive it?

A new hailstorm of notes from an electric guitar made him wince and stare back at the stage, at the guitar man working the strings again, hard.

“My lord, he’s a hottie,” Penny said, “that Frank Law.”

Dion leaned elbows on knees, no longer clapping along, no longer trying to fool anybody. He pulled the brim of his baseball cap lower, checked his watch, and did the math. Six songs so far, just a couple more to go. The dark-haired girl was still down there, a stillness in a choppy sea, but he’d lost interest in whoever she was and wherever she was headed.

Touch didn’t come easy to him, these days, but he made the eff ort, grabbed Penny’s hand, found it warm, and interlocked her fingers in his. She responded by leaning her shoulder against his. The music ramped up, and he could feel through his body the thumping of appreciation from the crowd, some three hundred fans shaking the frail structure like they were working together to bring it down. He thought about steel rods criss-crossed and linked to suspend too much weight too high, and about metal fatigue, the chain reactions of a snapped bolt, the carnage that would come with collapse, and his own death, twice in one year.

The next song was slower, its lyrics turning from hanky-panky to slow romance, and the thumping stopped too. Dion took a breath. Penny looked away to the midway rides, the languid revolving silhouette of the Ferris wheel. “It’s Kiera’s take on ‘The Banks of Red Roses,’” she said, sounding distant. “It’s song nine on her CD. It’s about murder. It’s so depressing. I always skip it.”

Penny hated violence. She liked romance novels and happy news of rescued animals. She seemed to believe that men were faithful and good, which bothered him. He’d tried to educate her, being a man himself, knowing well how unfaithful and ungood men really were. The average man follows his dick and grabs what he wants, and if he appears to behave, that’s all it is, appearances. Rein it in to hang onto the job, or marriage, or whatever he values. He had explained it all to Penny just the other day, and then put it to her: if a man has nothing to lose, then what?

Kiera finished her song of murder and yelled into the mic, “Thank you, Smithers, you’re the best, see you next year, hey?”

Penny said, “No way she’s going to leave it on that crummy note,” as singer and band walked off , and she was right. Enough of the audience came to its feet and demanded an encore that the band fi led back on stage. Kiera took up the mic again and crooned, “I love you too. Here’s one more for the road. I wrote this one especially for you cow-babies.”

She closed her eyes and swayed. Penny recognized the intro and said, “Oh, geez, I love this one. The blown kiss. Watch Frank.”

Dion did as he was told. The song was much like all the others, wild and discordant. The Rockabilly Princess was flipping her skirts, showing her legs. The boys in the crowd whistled and cheered. Frank the guitar man leaned into a second mic, and the song became a lovers’ duet. Frank stopped playing long enough to kiss his palm and blow that kiss at Kiera. Kiera reached up and caught the kiss and made to blow it back, but Frank missed the obvious cue. Distracted or ill-rehearsed, he failed to catch the kiss but kept strumming at his guitar strings, looking not at his lover but down into the crowd. Kiera twirled and sang on.

“Ouch,” Penny said. “She’s not too pleased.”

Frank was bowing back into his guitar strings, playing hard for the song’s climax. Maybe he knew he’d screwed up, or maybe not, but Dion found the missed kiss funny. He looked at Penny to see if she did too, but her eyes were fixed on Frank with what looked like pity.

Frank was the love of Penny’s life, on some level Dion couldn’t understand. She had a glossy Fling concert poster pinned to her bedroom wall showing the Princess dancing aggressively into the camera lens in denim dress and cowgirl boots, and next to her Frank in clingy tank-top, electric guitar slung across his chest. Penny had pointed to the poster on one of Dion’s rare visits to that bedroom and said, “Only in my dreams.”

Maybe he should have taken offence, but he didn’t then as he didn’t now. He looked down again and saw the native girl was gone, and so was her bag. In the middle of a song. Cutting out early struck him as strange for one who’d been watching so keenly, even if it was the last song. But probably he was wrong and she wasn’t a fan, was just here, like him, drawn into these bleachers by circumstance and killing time. He gave one last look at the spot she’d vacated, and then at the benches just above. One row or maybe two up from where she’d been sitting was now an empty patch, where before there had been a fairly even spread of audience.

He looked westward, scanning the milling fairground crowd, and spotted her as she passed through the blare of concession stand lights, not so far off yet that he couldn’t recognize that long hair flipping like a black banner, that ice-blue T-shirt. She moved from one patch of light to another, weaving through the crowd, crossing the midway, carrying her bag, not a duff el but a packsack. He searched for a pattern of motion at her back and saw it, a solitary figure scything through not far behind her, passing beneath those same patches of light and closing the gap. Tall, male, Caucasian, wearing a baseball cap much like Dion’s. Black, he thought, till a spotlight hit it square for a fleeting second, and he realized it was red.

He stood to see better, and Penny tugged his hand, saying, “Hey you, it’s not over.” He sat and looked down at the stage, but his heart was hammering. The girl was going to meet friends in the beer garden, that was all. Or heading for her car parked on the well-lit lower level plateau. Around him people went on stamping to the beat, and somehow he was sure she wasn’t meeting friends, or climbing into the safety of her car, that she was alone and she was on foot and her destination was the highway, either by one of several paths that cut through field or forest, or the long gravel road that led away from the fairground to the west, dark and empty, the perfect place for the man to catch up, reach out, take hold.

“I’ll be back,” he said into Penny’s ear and stood and edged along the bench past a dozen sets of knees until he was on the steps, thudding down, now jogging across the midway, seeking a red cap following a girl in blue.

But she was nowhere, and he stood amongst the fairgoers and listened to the happy din, conversation on all fronts, the music from the rides, screams from the Haunted House. Behind him Kiera cried breathlessly over the loudspeakers, “Thank you, I love you,” and she went on to remind her fans of her upcoming CD, on sale by Christmas. “It’ll knock your socks off , people, I promise.” The applause followed her off stage as Dion made his way back up, climbed the bleachers, edged past a dozen sets of knees, and sat next to Penny.

“You see somebody you know?” she asked.

“Maybe,” he said.

A man was on stage now, introducing The Old Time Fiddlers. Some people rose, shuffling toward the stairs, but most stayed seated, bringing out the lap blankets and Thermoses. Penny said, “Well, what d’you think?”

“I think we should go.”

“No, about Fling. Now that you’ve seen ’em play.”

A cold missile hit Dion on the nape of the neck, and he stood, mind set on departure. Penny gave a happy shriek as she was hit too. It was an icy rain, not quite the snow she longed for. Holding hands, they made their way along the planks to the steps, and by the time they’d left the stage behind and were heading down the midway where the rides spun and clanged, the water came down hard as hail. They took shelter under a canopy by the mini rollercoaster and watched the kids hurling along its rails.

“Have you been to the PNE?” Penny asked. “Bet you rode the big one. I always wanted to but never had the nerve. Did you?”

The noise of the fairgrounds and the rain had drummed out her words, or the meaning of them. He said, “Sorry, what?”

“You grew up down there….” She always did this, pressed patiently on through all his lapses, and he couldn’t understand why. He and she were a bad match. She was fun and lively, and he was barely here. Last month he’d arrived in this town, 1,149 kilometres from where he wanted to be, and was down at the post office signing up for a mailbox because they didn’t do door-to-door here. She’d been working behind the counter, and gave him the paperwork and key. He’d been bewildered and emotionally raw and she’d been chatty and welcoming. She’d talked him into a night at the movies, then dinner at her parents’ house, and already he was caught, a misconception more than a boyfriend, with no easy way out.

She repeated a question he must have missed. “And you’re a big, brave guy, so you must’ve, right? Rode the giant roller coaster, I’m saying.”

He looked down at her in distracted wonder. Penny didn’t know, because he hadn’t told her, who he was and why he was here. Hardly a big, brave guy, and no new recruit with a rosy future. As far as the force was concerned, he was a rehab experiment with low odds.

A flicker of colour brought him back to the moment, a red ball cap approaching. He studied its wearer but saw this guy was too young and too heavy to be the stalker, which wasn’t a stalker at all but a flight of fancy. His temples throbbed, and his back was sticky with sweat. He recalled with regret that other thing he’d done tonight, or failed to do, further proof he was no longer a detective: he had looked away just as she had looked up, the lone girl in the bleachers. His one good chance to see her face, and he’d blown it.

There was a clatter and shriek, and a carload of kids flew by. Penny was still next to him, but she’d given up on conversation. He pulled her into a brief hug then pointed a thumb at the glum roadie at the gate. “I’ll get you a ticket, if you want.”

He was joking. This was a travelling fair, with break-down rides, and its roller coaster was only fi t for six-year-olds. “Thanks but no thanks,” she laughed.

Heavy streaks of clouds muddied the night skies, and he sought Penny’s hand again, planning to tug her toward the parking lot, but she had escaped. He saw her over at the bumper cars, talking to friends. She beckoned at him and called out, “Hey.” He shook his head and flicked a hand at her, meaning go ahead without me, I’ll wait.

The last thing he needed was another crash. He leaned against the metal rail and turned away from the noise and action. He touched the left side of his head, just over the ear, feeling with his fingers the unevenness of the surgical mend, always worried it would come undone, and whatever he had left in there would come seeping out.

Behind him the cars slammed into each other, set to Def Leppard. He puffed out a breath and couldn’t help being there again, driving too fast down the long, straight roads of Surrey — or maybe it was Cloverdale — middle of the night, chasing someone, and it had come out of nowhere, a flash of red torpedoing in off the right out of what had to be a concealed side road. He recalled spiking the brakes, when in hindsight he should have stepped on the gas. He recalled shouting to Looch, but shouting what?

Last words.

Later he found out he’d been comatose for six days. Nobody would answer his questions or show him photos or share whatever the traffic analyst had pinpointed on speed and degrees of fault. They’d asked a question or two, but it was hardly the interrogation he was ready for, and that worried him too. All they said was, why were you in Richmond breaking the limit? Where were you guys going to, coming from? He’d said he remembered nothing of the day of the accident. He didn’t expect to be believed, but they seemed to do just that, believe him.

The flip side of claiming amnesia was that he left himself in the dark. He couldn’t ask those pointed questions he wanted to, and now he knew nothing of the investigation except the names of the deceased. He’d missed Looch’s funeral. He’d left town without a word to Looch’s widow, Brooke, or Looch’s mom or dad or sister or brothers. They wouldn’t have forgiven him anyway, but at least he should have tried.

So now he was back in uniform, pretty well healed, good to go. There was no brain damage, they said, and they seemed to believe it. He was trying to believe it himself, but he couldn’t. He was changed, rearranged, not himself. It would be a while before he could start climbing his way back to the top, be once again that smartass cop in suit and tie, integral, admired, the keenest eye on the team …

He brought his hand around and found it wet with cold rain, not warm blood, which took his worries in another direction: the winter weather and how he was going to steer his wheels through the coming snowfalls. Aside from training at Regina ten years ago, he wasn’t prepared for northern driving. He imagined snow coming down thick, coating the roads, concealing the ice. It would send him into a tailspin, another crash, another coma. How many comas could one brain take?

The knot tightened. He told Penny as she rejoined him that he needed to get home, get some sleep; he had work tomorrow.

On the gravel road to the upper parking lot they joined other fairgoers walking slowly out into the dark. Holding his hand, Penny said, “It was the best, though, wasn’t it?” The colourful fairground lights reflected in her eyes as she looked back, still spinning away in the distance. “Seeing them play?”

“Seeing what?” he asked.

“Them play.”

As always, the dots didn’t quite connect. “Who?”

“Fling.” She’d lost patience, probably for the first time since they’d met, maybe the beginning of the end. “Fling, the whole point of this day, remember?”

They walked in silence toward the vast muddy field that had been turned into a jam-packed parking lot for this fall fair weekend, no longer holding hands, and he kept an eye out for the native girl and the man who followed her, both long gone, leaving nothing to chase but a really bad feeling.