Is the back seat of a car an ideal place for introductions? Roslin wonders this as she watches the woman whose name escapes her shut the door of a narrow townhouse and rush down the front steps. She can feel her father’s eyes trying to reach her through the rearview—that smile of his that hides his teeth—but she keeps watching the stranger whom she’s been told over and over again simply can’t wait to meet her. Emma, she thinks. Or Emily. She hadn’t wanted to know a name. A name meant she was real.
“She just loves kids,” her father says, giving the horn a playful honk. “Really lots and lots of fun.” His childlike voice is the one usually reserved for the dog.
And it’s the dog, Roslin reflects, that is the reason they couldn’t have met back at the house. The woman who’s now opening a little gate and showing plenty of teeth in her smile has an overpowering fear of dogs great and small, or so Roslin’s father had explained earlier at the kitchen table as he collected Oscar’s white hairs from their clothes with a lint-roller.
“It’s not as weird as you might think,” he’d said, laughing dismissively. “There’s a word for it that I can’t remember. It can’t be that weird if there’s a word for it.”
There’s always a word, Roslin hadn’t replied. But it makes sense to her now; the woman out the window looks just like the sort of person who might be deathly afraid of dogs. She’s attractive in a frightening, hysterical sort of way—thin dust-coloured hair pulled so tightly in a knot-like bun that her long face appears stretched; eyes bursting with terrible excitement; cheekbones that could prick your finger.
“You must be Roslin!” she screams through the window’s glass, waving an arm as if for rescue.
Roslin feels her seat belt constricting her ribs. She squirms to unbuckle it, but the woman’s already opened the front passenger door and is now thrusting a hand toward the back seat.
“I’m Amelia,” she says, blinding Roslin with her high-watt smile. “Your father’s told me everything about you.”
Signs on the fairgrounds warn of heatstroke and dehydration. They spend an hour milling between tents and tarped concession stands, waiting in long lines for frozen treats. Roslin’s father keeps cupping his hands and whispering to Amelia, who throws back her head and laughs like shattered glass, a sound that cuts the ears.
What do you say to somebody about whom you wish to know nothing? Roslin, watching her father impersonate a man she doesn’t know, feels herself now in the company of two strangers instead of one. It brings to mind how she felt in her mother’s room toward the end, the shape of the skull beneath the skin, a plain grey head wrap hiding no hair. You don’t need to be afraid, she’d say when all Roslin could do was stare. Who do you think it is if it isn’t me?
A bald clown on stilts approaches where they linger off the thoroughfare. Bending to Roslin, he reaches behind her ear and produces a white plastic terrier the size of an acorn, which he places on her palm. A split-second of stillness precedes the high shriek from Amelia, who, recoiling, shields her eyes as though she’s witnessed murder.
“We’re not interested,” Roslin’s father says in a voice that’s finally familiar. “We’re fine here. We’re fine.”
The clown, sneaking a wink to Roslin, assumes an expression of deep melancholy as he rises to his unnatural height and ambles off in search of more welcoming fair goers.
As Roslin pockets the toy, she wonders how in the world the clown knew just what her own Oscar looked like. She wants to mention this to her father but fears how he might react. Instead, taking advantage of his bewilderment, she asks him for money and is given more than she expects.
“Back here at three,” her father says, glancing at his watch. Amelia’s face is buried in his shoulder.
Roslin nods and runs away.
She grips the horn of some strange ocean beast that carries her in circles on the merry-go-round. She batters with a mallet the heads of moles that pop from openings in a plank of painted wood. Each time she reemerges outdoors, the heat bears down with renewed intensity. She grows tired and slow.
With the last of her money, she buys a snow cone and sits on the ground in a shrinking patch of shade. A man on a nearby bench calls for her attention. He looks familiar in a way Roslin can’t immediately place. He’s as old as her father, at least, and he’s got a bald head like no one she knows.
“I wanted to say sorry about your mom,” he says.
That awful remark she’s grown so weary of hearing.
“You knew her?”
The man smiles and gives her the same wink she received an hour ago.
“It’s my job to make people laugh,” he says, “but now and then you get one that screams.”
In his hand is a sandwich wrapped in aluminum foil. Roslin, too overcome by the strangeness of the moment, says nothing as he continues his lunch. It’s never occurred to her that a clown is sometimes a person.
“Anyway,” the man says, getting to his feet once he’s finished. “I hope you’ll tell her that I’m sorry.”
Roslin wants desperately to explain that she knows nothing about the woman he’s mistaken for her mother, but it seems too difficult, too involved. Instead, she asks him for the time.
The man takes a phone from the pocket of his striped trousers and tells her it’s ten after three. He nods his head as he passes by and disappears into the slow-moving crowd. Roslin stays just where she is, untroubled for the moment that she has no idea where she’s expected to be.
RORY SAY — Rory is a Canadian writer of short fiction from Victoria, BC. His work has recently appeared in Uncharted, Lucent Dreaming, Short Fiction: The Visual Literary Journal, and The Four Faced Liar. Read more by visiting his website: rorysay.com.
Art by HEATHER HUA — Heather has an MFA in illustration from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and is now an award-winning freelance illustrator who works with traditional and digital media. Find more work at http://www.heatherhua.art.