“There is no way in hell.”
I blinked the glare of the carnival lights from my eyes and turned to face the voice behind me. The glow of the midway only just reached my perch at the top of the hill, creating an oasis of dark in a desert of light. James’ silhouette emerged from the shadows to sit beside me, his knobby knees pulled up to his chest.
“No way, what?”
“That girl.” He gestured with his half eaten bag of popcorn before shoving another handful in his mouth.
James snorted, sending a spray of popcorn through his pursed lips. “You’re kidding, right? What girl? Like you haven’t been mooning over her since the third grade.”
I scowled and turned my eyes back toward the midway. Out of spite, I tried not to look, but my eyes always seemed to find her. Lisa Gomez, face scrunched in concentration as she played an arcade game. James wasn’t wrong. I did have a crush on her. We were even friends for a little while, but she had a major glow-up in the sixth grade and and now she was out of my league. She didn’t snub me, exactly, but when you’re a chubby thirteen-year-old with a pizza for a face, you learn your place.
We were sixteen, now. She was the most popular girl in school and I was still waiting for my glow-up.
“She always plays the same game, have you noticed that?”
“No,” he drawled, “but, I’m also not stalking her.”
“She likes the crane.” A dreamy smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. “Always goes for the same prize, too. A stuffed unicorn.”
“Uh huh.” Another loud crunch. “Maybe, you should win it for her, Prince Charming.”
My back shot rod straight. “I should what?”
“Yeah, chicks are suckers for that sort of thing.” His eyes flashed in the low light.
“She’s not a chick.”
“Right, of course not. She’s a perfect princess worthy of nothing but respect. Fucking Anne Hathaway.”
I rolled my eyes.
“You’ll never get it though.”
My eyes jerked back to the game. “You don’t think so?”
“No way. It’s the biggest prize in the game. Besides,” he shrugged, “you know those games are all rigged. It’s practically impossible.”
I hugged my knees and dropped my chin onto them. He was probably right, but I couldn’t help feeling a childish hope. I saw it all play out in my mind. In my fantasy, of course, I was taller, leaner, with a chiseled jaw and perfect complexion. I would tap her gently on the shoulder and her bronze cheeks would darken with the faintest blush as she stepped aside, her chocolate-colored eyes widening as I lifted a single shining quarter between two fingers and slid it into the machine. A crowd would gather, breaths held in anticipation as I tapped the joystick and maneuvered the claw into position. Then, with a flourish, I’d let it drop, plucking the unicorn off of its perch and dropping it into the prize chute.
I jumped to my feet, cheeks heated with the flush of imagined victory. “I’m gonna do it.”
“You’re gonna embarrass yourself is what you’re gonna do.”
I ignored him and took off down the hill, kicking up a cloud of dust and hitting the boardwalk with a loud thonk. Heads turned as I slolumned my way through the crowd past dart throws and milk bottle pyramids and bee bee gun shoot outs. I stepped on a discarded hot dog and nearly went down before skidding to a stop in front of the crane machine. Behind Lisa Gomez.
Lisa’s long black ponytail whipped around her shoulders as she turned, eyes wide.
“It’s Francisco,” I said, wiping sweat off my forehead and straightening my Yu-Yu Hakusho t-shirt. Her eyebrows lifted and her lips pursed. “But, Frankie’s fine.”
“Long time no see.”
“We have third period English together.”
“Right.” She fiddled with the drawstrings on her cropped hoodie. “I just mean...we never talk anymore.”
Her full, glossy lips pulled into a tight smile. I imagined they tasted like cherry.
“Y-you going for the unicorn?”
“Yeah.” She threw up her hands and turned back to the machine. “I just can’t seem to get him.”
“Can I try?”
She shrugged and stepped out of the way. In a moment of panic, I turned out my pockets. Two pennies, a piece of lint, and thank God, a quarter popped out and I grasped it triumphantly between my fingers. The unicorn sat on a shelf in the back of the machine above all the lesser toys. The yellow lights of the midway bounced off its white fur and made it glow like a forbidden treasure. And I was Indiana Jones, ready to claim it with a skillful flick of my whip.
I took a deep breath and slipped the quarter into the slot. The machine came alive, yellow and red lights marching around the perimeter like army ants. I wiped my hands on my jeans before placing them on the machine, fingers wrapped lightly around the black plastic joystick. I gave it a nudge and the claw shot to the right. Too far! My heart thudded in my ears as I tapped it again. The claw swung wildly on its chain, left then right, forward then backward, until finally I had it centered above the unicorn.
I held my breath. The claw dropped.
Lisa gasped, hands clutched against her chest, as the claw landed squarely on the unicorn’s head. A yelp rose in my throat and then…
The unicorn shifted on its perch. The claw tipped, its weight dragging it down to the right. My heart sank as it fell empty to the bottom of the pit, floundering amongst the Pikachu’s and Goofy’s and Minnie Mouse plushies before coming up empty.
My cheeks burned and my throat constricted. The claw swung back across the toy pit and hovered over the prize shoot as if to mock me, dropping its nonexistent load with a sarcastic siren blast. The racing lights dimmed in acknowledgment of my failure. My shoulders dropped and I took a step back.
“Frankie?” Lisa’s sweet voice cut through the din of the carnival callers, but I couldn’t look at her. This was my one chance and I blew it. I wanted to be the prince, the knight in shining armor, but instead I was the toad.
I stumbled over to a nearby bench and fell into it, eyes on my toes. Lisa appeared a few seconds later and sat next to me.
“Don’t feel bad, Frankie. I’ve been trying for that stupid unicorn all week.” She laughed and wrapped her fingers in the end of her ponytail. “I could probably buy a hundred of them with the money I’ve put into that thing.”
I turned my face away, shoulders hunched, fingers gripping the edge of the seat. The lights flickered and the callers made their final calls as the carnival prepared to close. The crowd made their way toward the exits and I expected Lisa to follow them, but she stayed put.
“We could try again, tomorrow.”
My heart jerked upward from its seat in my stomach. I flicked my eyes in her direction and she beamed at me, eyebrows raised. “Tomorrow?”
“Yeah.” She shrugged. “My mom has been saving loose change for me so I have a whole bucket of quarters we can use.”
I blinked at her, shoulders lifting. “But, what if we lose?”
“It’ll still be exciting. I mean, half the fun is in the trying, right?” She bumped me with her shoulder. “Besides, I miss hanging with you.”
My breath caught. “Really?”
I glanced over at the crane machine, now dark, the unicorn inside just another piece of cheap junk.
Her smile broadened and her cheeks glowed in the fading light. “Okay.” She popped up off the bench and took a couple of backward steps toward the exit. “See you tomorrow, Francisco.”
My heart did somersaults and I felt lit up brighter than the carnival lights as she walked away, ponytail swinging behind her. I’d forgotten that in fairy tales, even toads can become princes.
James appeared from some dark corner, wiping greasy hands on his shirt and tossing his now-empty popcorn bag in the nearest garbage bin. He stopped in front of me, hands on his hips.
“So? What happened?”
I looked up at him, smiling so hard my cheeks hurt. “I won.”