There is a girl, and her name is Sam.
She has a mother named Courtney and a dad who is sort of around, sort of not. He lives ten minutes away, but he is not always home. Courtney says that’s the whole point.
“What is?” Sam asks.
“He’s never anywhere.”
“Yes, he is. He’s somewhere.”
“Very funny,” Courtney says.
Sam is seven and she never stops. She never helps either. Courtney is exhausted all the time—but it’s not just Sam. It’s Noah!
Noah is two and he has a teddy named Bill. He got a plastic ark for his birthday, but he only has one lion and one zebra left. You can’t teach Noah. You can’t even scare him. He thinks no is his name. Sam climbs up inside the doorjambs to get away from him.
If you want to know how, just take off your shoes. And socks! You have to be barefoot.
Stand in the doorway to the kitchen and spread your feet as far apart as they can go.
Wedge your feet into the frame.
Inch one foot up. Then the other.
Inch up some more.
Stop, or you’ll bang your head! Just stay there. Brace your feet against the wood.
Courtney says, You know what, Sam? This is getting old, because Sam likes to stay up there so long. It is not cute.
The day her dad comes over, Sam tackles him. “Where were you? Are you back? When did you get back?” Before he can answer, she wedges herself into the doorframe.
“Hey, monkey,” her dad says. “When did you learn to do that?”
Courtney frowns. “A long time ago.”
He just looks up at Sam. “Ready?”
“Okay, let’s go!”
Sam jumps down on him. “Where?”
“I don’t know!” He’s teasing, but she doesn’t care. He’s a jet. He’s a plane. He’s a parachute. He holds Sam by the heels, and pennies start falling from her clothes. She is raining pennies that were never there before—but that’s what happens with her dad.
“Stop that!” says Courtney. “Come on. Mitchell.”
Noah lifts his arms, even though Mitchell is not his dad, and calls out, “Me!”
Sam is wobbly when Mitchell sets her down, but she recovers fast. “Where? Where?”
“Yes!” She picks up the pennies. Then she runs to get her purse, and Noah runs after her. Sam sits on her bed and counts out her dollars. When Noah tries to climb up, she explains, “Noah, when you get older, you can go to the fair.”
“Where’s your hoodie?” Courtney asks Sam. It’s going to be cold, and Sam will be sick if her dad stuffs her full of junk. Cotton candy is not dinner.
Sam races out to Mitchell’s car, which coughs a lot.
“What’s wrong?” Courtney asks from the doorway when Mitchell tries to start it.
“It’s fine,” says Mitchell. The car coughs again and then again. In the back seat, Sam shuts her eyes and prays silently, Please please come on I’ll be your best friend.
The car keeps wheezing and coughing. Courtney picks up Noah to prevent him from running off. There are leaves everywhere. Two oaks fill the front yard, and a beech tree spreads out on the side. One rake isn’t enough. It’s an ocean. It’s a tidal wave of leaves.
“You’ve got a dead battery,” Courtney says.
“No, it always does this.”
Before Courtney can say anything else, the engine catches.
“We’re outta here!” shouts Mitchell, and they are hurtling down the road. The day is faster. The trees are brighter, the road is twistier. Sam’s house is gone, along with Courtney holding Noah up above the leaves.
The fair is bigger than a hundred football fields. You have to park miles away and take shuttle buses. On the bus, Sam gets the window and Mitchell sits next to her. They are both wearing hoodies. Mitchell’s is Red Sox. Sam’s is gray but warm. The pockets in front are connected so you can tunnel your hands inside. She is holding her money in her pocket between her hands. Her money is $9.26 folded into a calico change purse with the face of a cat. The clasp snaps shut between pointy ears.
Mitchell pays admission and then he buys tickets. He and Sam stay away from the games because that’s how they get you. They head straight for the rides. Not the Zipper because it makes you sick. Not the Ferris wheel, because it’s a waste. They ride the Pirate Ship, the Vertigo, and the Raptor twice. You fly over all the people and the arcades and the food trucks and the kiddie roller coaster. When Sam is a velociraptor, she doesn’t care about the cold.
It starts drizzling, but Sam and her dad ignore it. They lick cotton candy and their tongues turn blue. They share a fried onion exploded like a flower. They gorge themselves on kettle corn. Mitchell holds the bag as they walk through barns of fancy chickens and weird rabbits. There’s a milking demonstration, but it’s postponed, because the cow sits down and won’t get up again.
Rain pings the metal roof of the exhibit hall, and Sam buys red whips and a miniature china sheep. She can eat the red whips now and have the sheep forever.
Mitchell and Sam sit in the competition barn and Sam knots the long thin strands of red whips together. Then she eats the knot. Her delicate sheep is wrapped in tissue in a brown paper bag. She’s carrying him kangaroo style in her front pocket.
Outside, the grounds turn to mud. The competition barn smells like wet sawdust, but the horses in the ring are decked in braids and silver.
When the rain stops, it’s cold and soggy, and mud sucks your shoes, but so what?
Sam and Mitchell watch men climb a sky-high ladder to dive into a tiny wading pool.
They go to a pig race with little white pigs, the kind in cartoons with corkscrew tails. “It’s Porkchop by a nose!”
“Can I get a pig?” Sam asks.
“What do you think?” Mitchell answers. He always does that, asking questions back at you. He never says no.
Courtney says no to everything. She is allergic to all animals, including fish.
“Can I go up there?” Sam asks. It’s a giant trampoline, but the lines are long.
Mitchell says, “Do we have time?”
Then all at once, he sees the tower. They both see it. You have to tilt back your head to see the top. Handholds on the tower look like confetti. The idea is you strap on a rope and climb up any way you can, and if you get to the top, you ring a bell. “I want to do that,” Sam says. “Can I do that?”
It’s annoying because it costs extra. That’s how they get you, even after you pay admission and buy tickets. Also, it looks wet.
“You really want to go up there?” asks Mitchell.
“You think you can get to the top?”
Sam catches the excitement in his voice. He wants her to try. He thinks she can get up there, even though he says it’s harder than it looks.
They wait a long time—almost as long as it would have been for the trampoline. Sam shivers in her rain-soaked clothes. Mitchell would give her his own hoodie, but it’s wet too.
He says, “Maybe we should try something else.”
Sam hands Mitchell her china sheep in its soggy paper bag. She isn’t trying something else. She’s got her eyes on the wall and the people trying to reach the bell. One guy makes it. Then there’s a kid who gets stuck. When you can’t climb anymore, the man with the other end of your rope starts bringing you down.
Huddled together in line, Sam and her dad inch forward until finally, finally one of the ropes people calls out, “Young lady!”
Sam runs up the stairs to the platform where they hand you a helmet and strap ropes onto you. She’s wearing a harness around her waist and between her legs. The rope is thick and long, and it will keep her safe if she slips and starts to fall, but that won’t happen. She is already climbing with her right foot on the lowest foothold. The holds are big and close together, so she can climb foot over foot and hand over hand. The hard part is her shoes. They’re wet and mushy. She wishes she could take them off, but its too late. She can’t get rid of them, even though they drag her down.
She doesn’t look. She’s concentrating, inching up, one hold at a time. Her shoes are heavy, and her hands are small, but she makes it up halfway, and then the holds start spreading out.
She keeps climbing, foot after hand and hand after foot. Her hands are freezing. Her fingers are so cold she has to stop. She’s balancing with foot and knee braced against a big hold, and she takes her right hand and rubs it on her shirt. Then she switches and rubs her left hand. Resting there, she hears the music of the fair, the carousel, the games. A prize for everybody. Everybody wins! From far below, she hears her name. “Sam? Are you done, Sam?”