BY BILL GLOSE
Summer in North Carolina and the temperature is unusually cool. Throngs of revelers fill Lumberton Carnival’s fairgrounds with the ubiquitous glissando of laughter. Amid the raucous glee, soldiers from Fort Bragg are easy to pick out with their silent, staring ways. Home from war, their heads swivel as they scan the multitude, eyes flicking from face to hand and back again, checking for weapons, checking for intent.
Brendan Mueller wants so much to leave the desert behind, to pass by trampled litter without thinking Bomb, to linger near the Strength Tester without thinking Mortar every time someone swings the sledgehammer and sends a puck rocketing toward the bell. For months he’s longed for exactly this—a day out with his wife and daughter, ambling over matted grass instead of sand. Freed of body armor, dressed in his favorite Levis, the ones with the seat and thighs worn soft, he knows he should be more at ease, like all these smiling faces in the boisterous crowd, unaware of anything but whirling machines, painted clowns, and tents with all their games of chance. But the coil in his gut won’t unwind. His body and all its interconnected nerves say vigilance is required. There are just too many people here, too many hands to scan, too many potential threats.
Squirming in his arms is his three-year-old daughter, Chrissie, dressed in bright red shorts and a Mickey Mouse tee shirt. Her heart-shaped face and gray eyes are duplicates of her mother’s; her button nose and stubborn streak, gifts from her father. She hasn’t seen him in eleven months. Another time he’d been gone for six. Absent for almost half her life, he’s a stranger to her still. He lives in hallway pictures and on her mother’s computer when she Skypes and Chrissie burrows into her bosom, turning one eye to the screen. It’s hard for her young mind to correlate that one-dimensional face with this three-dimensional man, wiry and square-shouldered, his brown hair buzzed high-and-tight, his eyes roving away as if she doesn’t even exist.
Brendan’s wife, Sophia, is wearing yellow capris, a sleeveless, white blouse patterned with daisies, and a faux pearl necklace. He’s promised time and again that once he makes rank and catches up on bills, he’s going to buy her the real thing, a string of pearls the size of marbles, something to make the other wives in their housing quad drool. Here, she says, let me take her.
The girl stretches her arms out as Brendan passes her over, then she tries to settle on her mother’s hip. No, Baby, Sophia says, setting her daughter down and holding her hand, you’re too big for that now.
Brendan leads his family along the edge of the swirling cacophony, trying to keep the crowd to one side. But not everything is located on the perimeter; not the carousel, not the bumper cars, not the flying chairs. Those family-friendly attractions are clustered in the center, which shares space with food trolleys and gift shops, everything else funneling target customers into the confined area. Just like the kill zone in an ambush.
They ride the teacups, Brendan pulling hard on the center ring to spin them faster, Sophia yelling, Stop, stop, I’m going to throw up. But she’s laughing, as is Chrissie, so he keeps tugging with all his might. When they step off, Sophia’s woozy and leaning into Brendan for support. Chrissie is between them, holding her parent’s hands and giggling. They’re a Norman Rockwell portrait of the perfect American family.
As they make their way to the arcade, Sophia buys Chrissie a small stick of cotton candy. Chrissie pulls at the wispy stickiness and throws a chunk of it on the ground.
No, Baby, Sophia says, you eat it.
Chrissie opens wide and bites into the pink confection, getting as much on her cheeks as in her mouth. Then the taste hits her and wonder fills her eyes. She’s chomping the last bits and asking for more by the time they reach the gaming tents with their shelves crammed full of stuffed animal prizes.
At the ring toss, Brendan’s throws bounce off the necks of bottles before skittering away. Same with ping pong balls at the table of colored bowls. But then he steps up to the Annie Oakley Shooting Game and picks up an air rifle. Leaning an elbow on the counter for support, he ignores the big targets—the barn and cows—aiming instead at tiny birds atop haystacks and the chickens peeking out from small windows in their coop, their metal faces snapping back with satisfying Pings as he strikes each one. His score is high enough to earn a prize from the top shelf. Lifting Chrissie onto the countertop, he asks, What do you think, Honey, you want the Panda?
She nods, and the carnie pulls down the black-and-white animal, passing it to Chrissie with delicate care, as if it were fine china and not stuffed with wadding. Your father’s quite a shot, he says in a jovial tone.
And your mother’s quite a babe, says a man from the half-circle that had gathered to watch Brendan’s shooting display. A couple of other men chuckle along with him.
Brendan sets Chrissie back on the ground and steps over to the man who made the comment. Brendan’s face has turned to stone, mirth squeezed from his now flattened lips, his slit eyes. You say something about my wife?
The man is mid-twenties, same age as Brendan, but three inches taller, big-boned with thick, hairy arms protruding from a cut-off flannel shirt. A light blue UNC Tar Heel cap is tilted back atop his curly black hair. Lighten’ up, buddy, he says. Just payin’ a compliment. The guy looks sideways at his two friends, gives them a wink. One of them nods back. The Tar Heel looks back at Brendan, his brow wrinkling, some inner calculations crunching the odds and determining, with his bigger size and posse, that he’s way up on the plus side. Just sayin’ she’s Grade A, you know.
Brendan doesn’t hesitate. It’s the instinct drilled into him from a thousand rehearsals, his sergeant’s voice bellowing in his head, Someone confronts you, you put them down. And so, almost unbidden, his right hand shoots out, grabbing the man’s right wrist and twisting his arm backwards. Then Brendan kicks behind the man’s knee and presses his face into the grass. Were he still in Iraq, he’d zip-tie his wrists and pull a sandbag over his head.
The two friends are as dumbstruck as the rest of the gasping audience. The one who’d nodded encouragement earlier to his friend now flattened in the grass is first to respond. But not for long. Just as he reaches out to pull Brendan away, another hand yanks back on the neck hole of his Mötley Crüe tee shirt, momentarily choking him. The new hand belongs to someone in the crowd with the crew cut of a soldier, ebony-skinned, biceps stretching the sleeve of his Polo shirt. He’s no one that Brendan knows, but his brother nonetheless. Not your fight, man, the soldier says, holding onto the tee shirt’s scruff until its occupant nods agreement.
Brendan leans close to his captive’s ear. Apologize. Right now. He jerks up on the man’s twisted arm for emphasis.
The man wriggles like a landed fish. Okay, man, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything.
Not to me. Apologize to her. Brendan looks over his shoulder at Sophia, who is hugging herself and shaking.
Sorry, miss. I didn’t mean anything. Honest.
Brendan doesn’t even hear it. The man is forgotten now. Brendan is taking in the area around his wife, his eyes wild and searching. He jumps up and runs to Sophia. Where’s Chrissie?
Sophia reacts as if slapped. She spins in a quick circle, calling out, Chrissie! Chrissie! Where are you, Baby?
The man Brendan had tackled is now on his feet, wiping grass from his shirt and pants, as wobbly as Sophia had been stepping out of the teacup. Brendan glances his way, wanting to attack the man all over again, to punish him for his daughter’s disappearance, but that would be sidetracking. Chrissie is his mission. He scans his surroundings in a slow and methodical 360, surveying every slice of arc. The air is still filled with rings and buzzers from the arcade and beyond that the grinding of amusement rides and the screams of their passengers, but the crowd is quiet here, nothing emanating from this spot except for Sophia’s frantic calls.
Brendan grabs his wife by the shoulders. His voice is steady and firm. You look that way, he says, pointing back toward the teacups. I’ll go this way. He hooks a thumb toward the Ferris wheel. Meet you back here. He waits a beat to make sure she understands. When she nods and runs off, he turns and does the same.
He trots instead of running full out, calling Chrissie’s name while scanning the swarm of people for a tiny kid in red shorts and a white shirt. There are hundreds of children here but none fit the description. Then he sees one that does, a child holding a gray-haired man’s hand as they walk together, their backs to Brendan. He races up to them and is just about to grab the man’s shoulder when he sees the kid’s pink Nikes. Chrissie had been wearing white canvas shoes like her mother.
Brendan has suffered nightmares before—dead comrades asking him to help stuff their intestines back inside, rail-thin prisoners boring through him with their damning eyes as they squat on cardboard squares in cold holding cells, Iraqi children pulling his arm, begging him to let their father go, to let their brother go, to stop pointing his M4 at their sack-covered heads. Perhaps, Brendan thinks, this is penance for all his sins. He’d thought he could leave the desert behind, but if war has taught him anything, it’s that nothing ever goes as planned.
Something occurs to Brendan. He snaps his fingers and says, Lost and found. He remembers seeing the booth near the carnival entrance. He turns and runs that way, his focus back on mission, trying not to breathe life into his fears. Then his wife calls out his name. He looks in her direction and stops dead. She’s standing at the shooting gallery counter with Chrissie in her arms. Brendan’s heart is thumping in his ears as he walks over to them.
She was at the cotton candy machine, Sophia says. Just standing there watching it swirl round and round.
The attendant in the booth places the panda on the counter.
Keep it, Brendan says, grabbing Sophia by the elbow and pulling her away. How could you let this happen? he growls in her ear, propelling them into the crowd, which swallows them up, this once-perfect family on this once-perfect day.