By a Charm and a Curse

By a Charm and a Curse

Jaime Questell

For Dane, who is my constant.

Chapter One


Apologies to the people who love it here, but Claremore, Oklahoma, might actually be a circle of hell. Not one of the horrible ones, for the people who do unspeakable things to cats, but definitely one of the places where people who cheat on their taxes go to live out their monotonous afterlives. The thing that sucks is Claremore is exactly where my mom has ditched my brothers and me for a year, leaving us to live with our dad while she’s off in Guatemala, investigating this teeny tiny isolated village for a grant.

The only good thing about our abandonment is that Mom dropped us off just as Le Grand’s Carnival Fantastic was ending its engagement on the outskirts of the city.

“Have you ever experienced the life-altering joygasm of the deep-fried Snickers bar?” Juliet bounds along beside me, same as she did when we were younger, her golden curls springing in time to her steps as we cross the dusty parking lot toward the carnival entrance.

It’s a struggle to keep up, her long legs and general giddiness propelling her forward far better than any jet fuel could. The carnival sits in the middle of a field next to an abandoned mall. Graffiti cartoon animals run laps around the dilapidated building. Someone had written eat me in four-foot-tall letters near one of the entrances, only to have someone add an M at the beginning later. In another color, someone else had scrawled meat is murder, to which another artiste contributed, and it’s delicious u dirty hippy. Charming.

“Jules, I can say with some certainty that never have I ever experienced a candy-induced joygasm.”

“Then I can say with some certainty that you aren’t living your best life.”

Shame that once Le Grande’s Carnival Fantastic blows town, there will pretty much be absolutely zero to do here that doesn’t involve late-night visits to Walmart or football.

We follow the gathering crowds toward the ticket booth, funneling into the entrance beneath pennants made of sun-bleached calico, the patterns mere ghosts of their old selves. We’re not even through the ticket gate and already I can smell sawdust and burned sugar. Shrieks of terror and joy stutter through the wind, mixing with the excited chatter of those waiting in line. Hand-painted boards taller than I am lead up to the ticket booth, each one featuring a different performer. A knife thrower done in stark black, white, and orange. Two golden girls standing atop a spotted horse, no saddle or reins to hold them. A boy and girl, near mirror reflections of the other, hovering over a crystal ball, dark shadows creeping in around them. The biggest belongs to a trio of tumblers who tangle their limbs together until they’re one muscled mass of human impossibility. The sign is a boast, a dare, a promise—come and see these men and be amazed.

And I want to be amazed.

“Look!” I grab Jules by the wrist and tug her out of line to get a better look at the murals. I haven’t painted since the move, and, more than that, nothing here has made me want to paint. “These are fantastic.”

“They’re all right, I guess,” Jules says, taking her fingers from mine, her eyes already tracking toward the carnival entrance. “Do you think they’ll have those giant turkey legs? I had one at the state fair and thought I was going to die. On. The. Spot.”

Somewhere in the middle of her litany of praising poultry, I’m distracted by a flash of glitter and the soft clopping of hooves on concrete. A girl—slim and slight and decked out in what looks like a sequined bathing suit and fluffy bustle—pulls with all her might on the reins of the obstinate palomino before her. The thing is so huge and she is so tiny, it’s like watching Tinkerbell trying to tow the Jolly Roger.

She lets out a holler somewhere between a yelp and a grunt of unending frustration. “Benjamin!”

A blond boy—Benjamin, I assume—sets the battered red tool kit he had been carrying down on the ground and wipes his palms on his jeans. His glasses slip down his nose when he straightens, the lights of the carnival reflecting across the lenses. He gently takes the reins from the girl, and it’s impossible to ignore the way the tendons in his arms flex as he takes the giant horse under his control. He slowly strokes the animal’s cheeks and I wonder if the words he says to the horse are as soft. But just then the horse’s ears prick forward, and its feet dance in the dust.

“Hey, Whiskey,” says an olive-skinned boy, approaching from the row of tents nearby. “You need help?” As he looks at Benjamin, his mouth twists into a mockery of a smile. “Looks like the gaucho can’t handle a horse.”

“Benjamin was handling this horse just fine until you showed up,” the girl says with a snarl. I half expect to see fangs glinting in the fading light. As if to prove her point, the horse tries to rear, but Benjamin’s grip is firm, and the horse doesn’t break free. “Why don’t you go find some old lady to charm out of her pension?”

The boy scowls, but as the horse snorts and tries to rear up once more, he walks away. As he leaves, he knocks into Benjamin’s shoulder, muttering that word again, the one reeking of disdain even though it seems harmless enough to me. “Gaucho.”

Benjamin doesn’t respond, his fist still firmly wrapped around the horse’s reins, but the girl is slowly turning a violent shade of pink. But before she can say a word, King Jerkwad turns, gifting a million-watt smile to the line of soon-to-be patrons as he approaches. He runs the last few feet, and as he’s about to crash into a family with two chubby-cheeked toddlers, he launches into a backflip and lands kneeling before Jules and me. His chest puffs out and his arms spread wide. “The Fabulous Moretti Brothers are here to astound you! Come and find us inside!”

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