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.
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.