“Roll on up and feast your eyes! Try your luck and win a prize!”
Brandon meandered past the stall with its bellowing owner, shaking his head at those queuing to fire their water pistols into the gaping mouths of plastic clown faces. There was laughter and a cheer as the winning balloon exploded with water, and a small stuffed toy was handed to the grinning victor. The thing looked as cheap and hideous as the targets, and he suspected it wouldn’t be long before a child was on the way to the hospital choking on a dislodged glass eye or plastic button.
Brandon wasn’t a fan of the fairground. The noise, the lights; it was like being inside a giant fruit machine but with the added jackpot of drunk teens and pick-pockets. But he was there for Jennifer, who had squealed in delight at the suggestion. She still looked at life in such wonder, and for that he loved the bones of her. He tapped his hip pocket for the hundredth time that evening, and was again comforted by the presence of the ring.
He glanced over to the Ferris wheel. It was perfect: rusty with red, peeling sun-baked paint, but adorned with a kaleidoscope of lights and accompanied by the most traditional of fairground soundtracks. That was where he would ask her, at the top with the warm breeze in their faces and a view of the world. And he had booked their favourite Italian restaurant for later, arranging for chilled champagne and a single red rose to be waiting for them at their table.
The loud speaker from the waltzers interrupted his reverie and he looked at his watch. They had agreed to meet at the fair straight from work rather than go home first, but she was late. Not too unusual for her he conceded, but he wasn’t enjoying waiting there. Apart from his dislike of the fair itself—the arrogant ride operators hopping between carriages and the stale smells of fried grease and onions—he was feeling incredibly nervous. If she rejected him… well, he couldn’t carry on without her. But if she accepted he would never forget this evening; it was all or nothing.
He took out his phone, about to check if Jennifer had texted, or left a message when he heard her.
He turned and saw her approaching, holding her arms wide in apology and calling to him as she neared.
“I’m sorry, it was the traffic; there was an accident. I got here as soon as I could.” She gestured to the phone. “Turn that off. I’m here now.” It wasn’t like her to insist, but he did as she asked. “You haven’t been on the dodgems without me, have you?” She winked at him and smiled, her nose creasing as she teased him. He still got butterflies when he looked at her.
He kissed her. “Nope, not yet. Been on the ghost train a few times, though.”
“Oh, my brave boy! Come on, let’s see what’s going on!”
As they wandered through the field, traversing discarded bottles, plastic cups and chip trays, Jennifer scanned left and right as though looking for something in particular, and then gave a yelp of delight and pointed to a small tent set off to one side. It looked like a miniature Big Top, with gaudy orange and purple stripes decorating the roof fabric. A small easel stood at the entrance, supporting a hand written sign advertising the services of ‘The World Famous Madame Esmeralda: Teller of Fortunes, Reader of Palms, Medium to the Other World!’
“Wow, look! Let’s go in, Brandon, come on!”
“Are you serious? Gold curtain rings for jewellery, a tablecloth headscarf and a giant crystal ball? Jen, I see the future!” From her scowl, Brandon could see she was not impressed.
“Please, for me. I’d like to.”
“All right, but I’m not giving her any clues. Let’s see what Madame Esmeralda can do!”
“Are you sure your phone’s off?”
Again, that insistence that was not like her. “Yes, I’m sure.”
Brandon followed Jennifer into the tent, and was hit by the smell of incense and fragrant burning oils. It was a small room, if a tent could be called a room, and the vapours saturated the air making him feel heady. An elderly woman smiled at him and gestured to one of two vacant wooden chairs on the other side of a small, painted wooden table to where she sat. He couldn’t help but notice that as her attention turned to Jennifer, the old woman’s face appeared to glaze, as if her smile became fixed. He was sure he caught a flicker of anxiety pass across her face, but then the light was low and the whole atmosphere was unfamiliar too him; he may have been seeing something that wasn’t there.
He took his seat and handed over the fee for the privilege of listening to a load of old cobblers. Brandon was surprised though that she wasn’t dressed in the regalia that he had predicted earlier, but in a conservative beige skirt and white blouse. And although there were Tarot cards placed ready on the table, there was no crystal ball or other mystical trinkets. The woman looked normal enough, and other than the circus-coloured tent and thickly fragranced air, they could have been having a consultation in a GP’s surgery.
And yet the woman was still unnerving Brandon despite himself. She had not uttered a word since they had entered, but instead sat looking at him, as if contemplating how best to convey her reading. Eventually she opened her mouth to speak, but still hesitated. Brandon was tempted to break the silence, but sensing this she finally spoke to Jennifer.
“He’s not ready. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” She shook her head, and her gaze dropped down into her lap. Her shoulders sagged under an invisible burden.
“What? Hold on, I’ve just given you a fiver for this; you have to tell us something. Look, my dog died last year if that’s—” said Brandon.
“He’s not ready,” she said, still addressing Jennifer. Her tone was more definite now, final, and yet her voice threatened to break as she dabbed moisture from her eye with a tissue. She looked up, her eyes flicking to Jennifer and then back to Brandon. Brandon in turn looked at Jennifer for some reassurance, a lead as to how to react. But she was staring intently at the woman, pleading with her to continue without uttering a word.
“Come on Jen, I think we’re done. Jen! Come on, that’s enough, she’s nothing to tell us.” He stood and looked back at Jennifer, but she was hesitating, giving the fortune-teller a last chance to speak, which she evidently wasn’t going to act upon. Finally, Jennifer rose and followed Brandon out of the tent.
“Well that was weird, what do you think was wrong with her?”
She shook her head, and reached into his pocket for his phone. Wordlessly, she turned it on and handed it to him. Immediately it trilled and vibrated as if electrified. Brandon took the call. “Hello, Madame Esmeralda’s house of Horrors?”
“Brandon? Brandon is that you? Where are you? We’ve been trying to call you.”
“Hi Dad. Sorry, long story, you wouldn’t believe me if I—”
“Son, listen to me. There’s been an accident.”
Brandon stopped walking. Those are four words no-one ever wants to hear.
“Jennifer’s Dad called us from the hospital. They’ve not been able to get hold of you.”
“My phone was off. I… Jen’s parents?” For a moment the panic was eclipsed by confusion.
“Yes, Brandon; don’t speak, son. Listen to me for a minute, please. Jennifer was in a car accident on her way to you. The police tried your number, but… come home, Brandon, you need to come home now.”
Brandon’s head was swimming; he couldn’t reconcile what his father was telling him with what he knew to be true: Jennifer was standing here looking directly at him. Surely this was just a mistake, but there was something in her eyes, something wrong. Her chin began to tremble with the sobs that she struggled to suppress.
“She was badly hurt Brandon. I’m sorry, they couldn’t save her; she died a short while ago. Stay where you are, I’m coming to pick you up.”
It was impossible, ridiculous. Except that Jennifer was still staring into his eyes and now tears welled up and she nodded, only once, but it was enough to affirm the conversation. She looked at him with a desperate sadness. She mouthed the words, “I love you,” and he tried to touch her face but she stepped backwards, out of his reach. He called her name but she retreated further. People turned to stare as his calls became louder and more desperate; his world evaporating into mist as he tried to cling on to it.
The ground became unsteady and the fair whirled around him. He tried to focus, to seek out Jennifer, but lost his balance and staggered forward, dropping his phone. His father’s voice, still appealing to Brandon to answer him, became tinny and distant a million miles away.
As he retched, passers-by nudged each other and chuckled at the man they thought had indulged in one ride too many. But as they gathered closer their smiles faded and were replaced by looks of impotent concern. One girl reached out a hand as the man fell to his knees, but hesitated and withdrew when she saw his face.
Brandon didn’t see the crowd. He saw Jennifer, her hair blowing in the breeze at the top of the Ferris wheel; her smile warming him against the chill; her hand in his, with the ring glistening on her finger. A piano cut through the fading fairground music and there was a rose on her dinner plate and cold, bubbling champagne. She was giggling at something he had said, as he lay above her on a four-poster bed. He breathed in her scent and let the delicate citrus fill his soul, before lowering himself onto her. It was as he had planned it, as he had dreamed it, as she had told him many times she wanted it to be.
And then it was gone, replaced by strangers’ faces and hostile lights, the air filled with the acrid stench of fried onions. The drone of the fairground music returned, but through it now he could hear something else; a low, woeful groan that rose and grew and exploded into a primal scream, releasing the grief of a thousand lifetimes.
Hearing the commotion, the old fortune-teller rushed out from her tent and saw Brandon collapsed on the ground. She shooed away the closest of those crowding around him and crouched by his side, putting her arms around his shoulders and pulling his face into the crook of her neck. She held him, rocking back and forth as his cries ebbed back to a guttural moan. She cradled the back of his head and whispered into his ear, “She loves you. She wanted you to know, she loves you. I’m so sorry. That’s all she can tell you now.”
Brandon looked up from the old woman to search the faces huddled around him, but he couldn’t see Jennifer anywhere. As it had so many times that evening, his hand reached for the ring that was to have been Jennifer’s forever. But his pocket was empty.
Dan Forrester asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work