ARRIVAL

“Oh, my gosh. I totally get the br—”

 

“Stop!

 

“What?”

 

“Where are you going?”

 

“Uh, duh! To meet the kids.”

 

“Wait ‘til they get off the bus first or you’ll freak them out! Gia hasn’t even pulled the parking break. You gotta wait a minute. She probably has to give a speech or something.”

 

“Ugh. Those take so looong!”

 

“I know. But calming kids down after you freak them out takes even longer. And first impressions matter so—”

 

“Wait. The engine’s off! Here comes the speech!”

 

“No. That’s a glare. At you. Because of you, Gia spotted us so now she’s gonna—”

 

~o~

 

Intruders banished back where they belonged, Gia shrugged some tension out of her neck, took a breath, and turned to face her passengers.


“We made it,” she said and had to smile when they look less than enthused.


That would change soon. For the moment, however, they just looked happy to have the earth still beneath them and like they might need a minute or two before they started walking.


The good news was that she had their full attention, so she put it to use.


“Everything changes now,” she informed them. “Per the contract with your parents, Adam is my sole focus from here on out. The rest of you are free from me, and Adam is the only one I will escort to the Z Labyrinth gates tomorrow night. The rest of you must find your own way and make your own choices because the options here are endless and there is no right choice. Only the choices you prefer. And you are safe because nothing can happen in this place that you do not wish for.”


“Is it just me, or does she sound like Professor Trelawny right now?” Whitney whisper-asked Adam.


Gia ignored the comment and continued. “No one can tell you what to do here. But be advised: everyone here has a game they’re playing and it’s their goal to get you to play it and lose.”


“And where is here?” Chad grouched from his seat, eyes trained out the window. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. Again. Besides getting bit or stung by something, what trouble are we supposed to be getting into out here?”


“Ah, yes. That,” Gia said, pressing the same button she’d pushed over an hour ago when the sun had gone down.


The blackout screen had turned everything outside as dark as night, saving her the headache of hearing a thousand questions she couldn't answer on the way in.


As the windows turned back to normal, Chad leapt away from the window as their true location came into view, revealing a monkey on the other side looking back at him.


Behind the monkey, clowns, acrobats, and a patchwork of garish lights and colors surrounded them in every direction -- all part of a caravan city where every parking spot became a spectacle booth and every night was a performance.


And the performances were in full swing.

Even Kei’s jaw dropped at the sight of a glowing and vital world that appeared around them. Kei's moment of awe felt like a small victory somehow, even if Gia didn’t let it show.


“You should also know that inside this bus is your safe space,” she informed them. “Only the five of you can enter, once the team waiting outside installs bunk beds. If you need food, come back. If you need to sleep, come back. You need a break—”


“I can’t believe you brought us here,” Bella said, staring out the window like she was looking at a ghost.


Because, in a way, she was.


“Money is no good here,” Gia continued, again ignoring the comment. “If you give anyone money, they will not give it back. All exchanges are coin or barter. To barter, you need to have something they want. To buy with coins, you must earn them first by beating people at their own games.”


Gia looked her little group over. They looked awestruck and motion sick at the same time and made for quite a picture … a picture that needed a little time to pull themselves together before they went out.


“That’s all I can tell you. The rest you’ll have to figure out yourself,” she said, opening the soundproof door and letting in a flood of music, laughter, and sound. “Good luck.”


Then Gia walked off the bus.

 

~o~

 

Clamping his hands over his ears to protect his ear drums from the wall of sound from outside, Chad ran to the front of the bus and pulled the lever to re-shut the door.


“Thank you,” Adam said, uncovering his ears.


Already agitated, Chad found himself even more annoyed that he and Adam plugged their ears the same when things got loud. It made him feel like a loser and like opening the door again just to prove he could handle it.


“Impressive soundproofing,” Kei said in the newfound silence.


Chad was an inch away from re-opening the door when Bella added, “Seriously. I can hear myself think now.”


The moment he heard the relief in her voice, Chad’s hand came off the lever and he turned to face the windows in disbelief.


The world outside their windows looked like an out-of-place carnival. There were people and animals in costume, along with trendily dressed visitors who looked like they’d lost some articles of clothing in a poker game at some point.


Watching them made it seem like the windows were movie screens playing a film on mute, even though Chad knew that wasn’t the case.


He knew this insane place was their destination because it was just the kind of place that would fascinate a freak like Adam.

It was so freakily weird that Chad didn’t know where to start in processing it. Luckily, Whitney was there so he didn’t have to worry about being the first to say something.


“Oh, my gosh,” she said, gawking out the window. “Are we at Burning Man?”


“No,” Adam replied. “Don’t let the costumes deceive you. These are intellectuals. Nearly everyone here has a doctorate in something and is testing a theory.”


“While dressing like circus acts?” Whitney asked. “They’re like … clown doctors running experiments in the middle of the desert?”

“Well,” Adam hedged, clearly out of his depth when it came to saying something that didn’t send Whitney into a panic attack.


Rolling his eyes, Chad turned to Bella. She knew something about where they were. He could tell by the freak out written all over her face.


Bella never freaked out, which had Chad’s heart pounding protectively as he tried to see if she was looking at anyone in particular as she gazed out the window.


She wasn’t.


And the uncertainty of it all had Chad’s neck sweating in a weird way.


“Bella, where are we?” he asked, regretting the sharpness of his tone when she didn’t scowl back at him like she usually did.


She was genuinely freaked and looked like she needed a hug. The sight made his feet feel restless and him fighting the urge to do something stupid.


“Is your dad here?” Adam asked before Chad could figure out her concern himself. Yet, once he heard the question, he new Adam was right.


Chad had only seen Bella’s father once in a picture when he'd snuck into the servants' housing several years back.


The picture had been on a side table in a frame. In it, Bella was still in diapers.


Chad always remembered the picture because her dad had been dressed up like a court jester in it. It had seemed so bizarre when he saw it that he'd never forgotten it.


Yet the costume in that picture would totally blend in with the scene currently outside the windows. It was eerie, almost. Like a time capsule.


“Wait, you’ve been here before?” Whitney asked Bella hoepfully. “With your dad?”


“No,” Bella said softly, eyes moving over everything she saw as if it was a mirage she feared might fade in front of her. “My dad said I’d find my way here myself when I was old enough … I told him, no, I wouldn’t. But…”


“We’re here,” Adam finished for her in a tone that made Chad want to punch him in his insensitive face.


“Where?” Whitney asked, sounding a bit manic in her growing panic.


Bella shrugged. “He just called it The Traveling Carnival.”


Adam nodded as if that made sense. “That’s what they call the booths outside the main cul-de-sac. They are an unofficial aspect of Z Labyrinth, intended to distract visitors from reaching the gates before the close.”


Chad could have punched Adam for acting so indifferent while the girls on the bus were clearly freaking out. For all his genius, Adam refused to learn how to read a room and it drove Chad crazy.


“And you’re just mentioning this now?” he snapped at Adam, which seemed to pull Bella out of her stupor to defend him.


“Hey! Be nice!” she yelled at Chad. “It’s not his fault. He couldn’t have known.”


“Whatever,” Chad said, rolling his eyes. “I’ll bet you anything he pre-calculated the odds.”


When Adam opened his mouth to reply, Bella stabbed a finger his way. “Don’t say anything. There’s no way you could have known and you don’t have to defend yourself!”


Adam’s mouth shut again.


“Mind if I get off?” Kei asked, only to be met with four dubious stares. “To do some recon? Get a feel for the place? I’ll come back.”


Four sentences in a row. That was a lot for Kei.


“Oh, my gosh, yes!” Whitney cheered. “Please? Find out if there’s an area that isn’t vintage creepy. I feel like it’s Alice in Wonderland meets Robin Hood out there.”


That's actually not a terrible description, Chad thought as he pulled the lever open again—weirdly proud when he was the only one who didn’t cover his ears again when a dozen different songs and countless conversations came flooding in.


“Hurry back,” Chad said, watching as Kei stepped off the bus and into the madness.


He probably should have suggested that Kei use the buddy system, but the truth was he wasn’t worried about Kei. The kid was a freak who could take care of business.


Plus, Chad wasn’t so stupid as to think Gia was really gone. If his night out in the woods had taught him anything, it was that he was never alone under Gia’s watch.


Somehow, she had eyes everywhere. Which meant Kei would be fine. They all would.


They just had to convince Bella and Whitney of that before the split up.


“Good luck,” Chad called after Kei, then shut the door and let the bus fall back into silence.

 

~o~

 

Oddly, everything grew quieter when Kei stepped off the bus.


It was like stepping on the other side of a megaphone where all the voices were at normal levels and instruments sounded like they were coming from a distance.

Kei would have to figure out why that was later because there was plenty to focus on in the moment.

Kei had never seen a carnival like this in the United States. As in the dome, the vendors here were from everywhere — even places Kei had never visited before. Which was unusual because Kei made it a point to visit everywhere.


The fabrics held Kei’s attention the most, followed by the glasswork in much of the lighting. Everything seemed handmade, which gave Kei the sense of being on a different continent than they actually were — as did the abundance of acrobats casually using high wires to quickly move between locations.

Kei itched to join them.

“Step right up!” the vendor closest to Kei yelled, making eye contact to make it clear he wasn't yelling randomly. He looked Egyptian. Clean cut. His robes gave the impression that he might be a magician when he wasn't trying to sell something.

“Get your blacks and whites right here!" he called out to Kei. "Best you can get!”

An obvious lie, yet Kei played dumb and stepped closer. “Blacks and whites? For what?”

“For Z Yellow Brick Wall, of course!” the man replied. “Haven’t you heard?”

“Heard what?” Kei asked, still playing dumb while drawing closer to hear better. It might not be as loud out here as in the bus, but it was still a cacophony that was hard to have a conversation in. “What’s the Yellow Brick Wall?”

The vendor’s amiable manner flickered into steel for a blink of a moment as he assessed Kei, then his easy smile was back.

“Why, the Yellow Brick Wall is a time capsule of thots, rants, and wisdomisms of all those who write in black and white on its gold!" he replied. "Absolutely no color allowed—not even a shade of grey. But anything in black and white stays up and is cataloged forever as part of the vintage of its year. At the end of the season, all images are loaded up into the Museum of Legacy where they can be viewed for years to come!”

Kei’s head tilted with interest. “What about hate speech? Is that allowed in the museum?”

“It’s allowed,” the vendor said with a nod. “You’re certainly bound to see some. But you'll find that most visitors are more interested in sharing an insight, or teaching a principle, or sharing an image they want to be remembered for. And, with paint like mine, you can create whatever you like! Only one coin gets you enough paint to paint a mural as large as you can make!”

A vague value promise, indeed.

“No, thanks,” Kei said, moving on. “I have what I need.”

“How can you know what you need if you’ve never even seen the Yellow Brick Wall?” the vendor called as Kei walked away.

Hands out of sight—along with the two cans of spray paint they were holding, Kei made no reply as the familiar rush of having stolen something in plain sight had Kei ready to paint something, if only to need more paint and have to steal again.

It had been three long days of behaving. But now that Kei was in a den of manipulators and thieves, the gloves could really come off.

This was going to be fun.

 

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