“Free” is a short fiction story that was written by Frank and published on his personal blog in 2015.
It only came once a year. Once every 365 days. Well, technically it was here for four days, but I was only allowed to go once. I never understood why; all the other kids got to go every night after school, so why wasn’t I allowed to? My parents always worried that I would get lost at the carnival, that “something would happen.” I knew they were overreacting. They always overreacted. One time, I got a splinter and my parents called the hospital, thinking it may get infected. Well, I couldn’t possibly get a splinter now. Not here. I knew that there was nothing to fear at a place like this. Still, they insisted they come along every year, for that one day, each time making the same case: you can’t be alone. Whatever.
My parents had always babied me, ever since I was… a baby. They never let me out of their sights. I guess it was for good reason. Apparently, I’ve got some sort of “disorder,” something that hinders my ability to do things on my own. I’ve never been able to see it. I can eat, sleep, do my homework, play with other kids; it’s kind of ridiculous, really. It wasn’t all bad though; my parents were always giving me toys, buying me things, rushing to obey all of my orders – I almost felt sorry for them. I took advantage, sure, pretending at times to be more different than I was. I almost felt sorry for me.
Each of the previous five times I had stepped out of the car and onto the freshly mowed grass, the smell of funnel cakes, hot dogs, and French fries had stimulated all my senses, forcing a smile upon my lips. This time, however, it was different. The smell of ash and cigarette smoke overpowered the almost magical scent I had grown to love and crave over the last couple of years. It made the grass feel sharper, irritating, like millions of tiny blades fighting to bury themselves inside my skin. I guess I never noticed it until now. Being in school these days does that to you – it changes the way you look at things. Lets you see the world as an adult by giving children a realistic view of the planet they live on. Smoke of all sorts makes its way into kid’s lives when they enter junior high. I remember my first experience.
Want a cig, Johnny?
No Thanks. Mommy told me I shouldn’t smoke.
You always do what your “mommy” tells you? Even you can do this and not screw it up.
Come on, man, it’ll be funny. You get a buzz like a motherfucker.
I’ll be fine.
Suit yourself, retard. Drag. Puff
Okay fine, give it here.
I hated it. I hated the abnormal flare of heat against my lips. I hated the feeling of smoky nothingness entering my lungs. I hated the wild coughing sensation you always had to go through after taking a drag – no matter what. But I hated the name calling even more, so don’t get me wrong, I kept smoking. But I hated it. So now I was going to hate the carnival. Hate that my irrationality had turned this once-perfect place into a back alley in New York City. Or the backwoods behind my school.
Despite my disappointment, I made my way towards the ticket line, eager to shed my mind of that detestable smell. My parents yelled out to me, imploring me to check in with them as soon as I’d gotten my ticket, but I wasn’t listening. I was tired of them. This was the one night a year I was allowed to do “me” without any limitations, or at least without most of them. I usually needed them, needed their support. I usually had to attend meetings with the guidance counselor, figuring out what classes I would be a part of for the next week or month. But not tonight, for the next few hours, at least. No doctor’s visits, no shots. No homework or talk about getting more help. Nope. Instead, tonight was my night. Freedom.
It’s funny, freedom is an odd thing to possess; it’s always an afterthought and never taken seriously. I often wondered what it would have been like to be a black man in the 1800s after the Civil War – finally a “free man,” or so those Yankees had said. But all of the lacerations and scars from bloody whippings and unbearable labor would never allow those men to move on. They would never be truly free. Just like me. Just like my scars from surgeries and diagnostic tests kept me in this insidious purgatory; a purgatory that I had so desperately wanted to escape that I once even thought about slicing one final scar into the seam of my left forearm. Oh, how relieved I would have been to finally move on – to watch the red slowly creep down my painfully white limbs. To finally be free. But that would leave another mark, and, in turn, prove that I hadn’t really freed myself – I had actually imprisoned myself forever.
I started to run, away from the formerly suppressed memory, and tripped over my own feet, falling hard onto the trodden surface. I looked around, almost expecting assistance, but no one stopped to help. No one took note of the “special needs” kid that had helplessly been pulled down towards the turf. Instead, the people just kept walking, shooting awkward glances my way, praying that I would pull myself up so they wouldn’t have to stop and help. No one ever stopped to help, but what they didn’t know was that I didn’t want it – I liked having the opportunity to do this on my own. For once, I felt useful. I shifted all of the strength in my body towards my shoulders and arms, forcing myself back up onto my feet. I brushed the dirt off my shins and carried on towards the suddenly intoxicating smell of the carnival, the smile crawling back onto my face more rapidly with every step I took.
The closer I got, the more I could sense the deep-fried wonderfulness of dough and powdered sugar consuming me. My newly formed distaste for this place quickly vanished as I veered from the ticket line and towards the delicious aroma. As I approached the miniature food booth, my eyes began to widen unwillingly.
So. Many. Choices.
I tried to keep calm but couldn’t contain my delight as I exhaled a shriek of excitement, forcing the cashier – a young boy who couldn’t have been over the age of 18 – to look my way, slightly concerned. I couldn’t help it; funnel cakes were on the list. Without saying anything, he turned around, walking towards the back. I looked inside the rectangular booth to see where he was headed, only to notice that he was rolling up a dollar bill and using it to snort what seemed to be powdered sugar straight up into his nose. I’d never thought of this before – the correlation between taste buds and the nostrils was obviously the most effective way to consume food, in most cases. But what if it didn’t have to be chewed? Like powdered sugar?
The boy shook his head violently, aggressively shrieking as he slammed his fist back down onto the counter.
Wow, sucking powdered sugar through the nostrils must be even better than on funnel cakes.
I called out to him, startling the boy.
Yeah, hi kid, uh, what’s up?
Do you guys sell just powdered sugar here?
What? Uh, we can, I guess.
Good. I’ll have one cup of it.
How much is it?
Ummm, just take it.
But I need to pay.
Fine, sure. One dollar then.
I paid him, grabbed the cup, and began to walk. Staring at the white mound I held in my hands, my mind began to race. I couldn’t focus. This was the opportunity to free myself. I sat down at one of the many wooden benches placed throughout the field. I looked down at the white powder again and wondered what would happen once I sucked it all up. Would I have a new favorite food? Would I be as excited as the boy from the booth?
No more wasting time, I was too excited to wait. I shoved my nose into the cup and snorted the sugary substance up my nose, which immediately resulted in a coughing attack.
And I hate coughing.
Once I stopped, I looked around. Nobody noticed me. Nobody had stopped to ask if I was okay, or to see why I was snorting the sugar rather than eating it. Not a single soul. And I didn’t feel different, either. My nose stung, but that was…
No, there had to be more to it. That boy had seemed so excited. Maybe I did it wrong.
I made my way back over to the booth, hoping to get some answers. However, when I looked inside, I saw no one. Not at first, at least. My eyes finally drifted towards the floor, where the boy now lay, motionless, powdered sugar lacing the left side of his nose, along with a faint trickle of blood. It reminded me of that time Aunt Rose got a nose bleed at dinner. She had been drinking coffee when all of a sudden liquid began to shoot down from her nostrils and into her drink. Only she hadn’t laid down. She had freaked out, rummaging through her purse for tissues at the first sight of blood. I’ve always been infatuated with blood, personally, but I guess she didn’t have the same fascination. Instead, she had begun to scream. I didn’t, because I knew everything was going to be okay. This time, however, I wasn’t so sure, so I did it. I screamed. Not in a helpless, damsel-in-distress type of scream, but a scream that one yells when they need assistance. Apparently, I always needed assistance, so I was used to it.
Immediately, a couple came running over. Once they saw the boy, the woman cupped her hand over her mouth, while the man pulled out his phone and dialed 9-1-1. I was honing in on the man when the woman grabbed my face. She wiped the powdered sugar from my nose with a look of horror, asking me what happened. I was at a loss for words, not knowing what to say, so nothing but gibberish came out.
I was saved by my mother, who pulled the woman from me with one swift motion. The two began shouting, about what I could not comprehend. I don’t remember much of what happened next.
I do remember the woman pointing into the rectangular box where the boy lay. I do remember my mother’s tears. I do remember my father pulling me in tight, assuring me that everything was all right even though I didn’t truly know anything was wrong. But most vividly I remember wanting a funnel cake, more than ever, and wishing that I’d purchased that instead of the cup of powdered sugar. To this day, I don’t know what the hype was over snorting the sugar. But I do know the hype over a fluffy, luscious funnel cake. I’ll always know that.
I never ordered plain powdered sugar again. Some things should never change, and some things never will.