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Chapter 8: Matt Driven Batty

The three of them fought the crowds as they approached the center of the carnival. Matt gawked at the other carnival goers, noticing that they all looked about the same age. Perhaps his brother’s mind felt better with having everyone be his own age. Maybe it was the magician’s idea. Who knew? It wasn’t as if he could look up the place on his phone.

A minute later, Matt spotted a sign that made him think this would be a lot better than the real carnival.

“Hey, dad, look,” he said. “Free food!”

They ran up to the booths and sampled a little bit of everything. Each swatch of cotton candy had three different colors, each with a different flavor. The popcorn carried ten times more punch in a dozen different flavors without getting their hands greasy, and the churros were twice as thick and served in crazy shapes like edible balloon animals.

While Neil chowed down on his churro burro, Matt’s attention was drawn to a row of midway games. He scanned down the row and settled on the biggest and brightest game of them all. A flashing sign above the game proclaimed it to be “The Hammer of Hercules” and he was the only taker. A 13-year old dressed in a red and white striped shirt and matching pants ran over to him and offered him an oversized wooden hammer.

“There’s nothing to it. You just hit the stopper with the mallet here as hard as you can, which makes the basket over there fly up. You get a score out of 50, and a different result depending on how high the basket goes.”

Matt nodded and accepted the hammer. Though he didn’t expect to score anywhere near fifty, it would be a good way to burn off some stress. The hammer wasn’t as heavy as it looked, but still enough that he had to use both hands.

He glanced up at the numbers that represented his goal. On each multiple of ten, there was a drawing of a different animal—bats at 10, a bear at 20, a lion at 30, and a dragon at 40. At 50, there hung a picture of an open treasure chest spewing gold.

Thinking how much Tyson would like a dragon for his birthday, Matt took a deep breath and lifted the mallet high above her head. He struggled momentarily for balance and then heaved it downward, grunting loudly as gravity took over.

The hammer flew true and hit the stopper squarely in the middle. In front of him, the basket shot up, flying higher and higher until losing momentum and reversing direction.

“19!” declared the attendant. “Not bad! But so close to 20. Doesn’t that drive you batty?”

Matt took a deep breath and nodded, wondering where to go to collect his prize. Just then, a trapdoor swung open from the wall beside the basket and a swarm of black screeching shapes burst out. They sped toward him, their black wings beating a crazy rhythm.

“Bats!” Matt cried as he tried to convince his feet to change direction. When he finally succeeded, the creatures had caught up, nipping and tearing at his clothes, squeaking and squealing.

“Not just any bats,” called the announcer. “Fire flinging fruit bats!”

The bats took their cue from the announcer and spread out, attacking a series of nearby fruit stands. Each bat grasped a piece of fruit in its claws and then opened its mouths wide, emitting a jet of flame, turning each fruit into a fiery missile.

As he had feared, the bats took to flinging their sweet-smelling missiles at him. A flaming pineapple flew past his head, followed by enough fiery peaches to make cobbler for his whole block back home. He ducked into a nearby tent, only to have it burst into flame as a bunch of flaming bananas dropped on the roof.

He rushed forward, keeping low, when he felt tiny pricks of intense hit break out over her right arm. A scrawny bat had ignited a cluster of grapes and launched them at him one by one.

Despite his cries for help, the others at the carnival didn’t seem to care that he was being chased by a flaming fruit salad. He looked left and right, but Neil and Bahati were nowhere to be seen.

“Probably saw the new and improved nachos,” he grumbled. “Maybe he’ll stop eating so much after food kills me.”

The cries of the bats grew louder and he put on a new burst of speed, heading for the outskirts of the fair. He felt like he was losing them, until a molten cantaloupe smashed into the back of his legs and he fell hard. Just before he hit the ground, however, he was thrown back by an unseen force. He landed roughly back on the trail, now behind the swarm of pursuing bats.

Nearly screaming because of the pain in his leg, he clawed the ground and scooted himself forward and back toward the shelter of the carnival. The fruit bats wasted no time reversing their course and raising their weapons to finish him off. All at once, they let out a piercing screech, even higher than all the others, and launched their remaining fruits at him.

Matt flung his hands over his face and waited for a fiery end, when another sound filled the air. It sounded to him like a war cry in a language he could not understand. It began low and then grew in intensity until it drowned out even the cries of the bats.

A blast of icy air enveloped him and flew past, freezing the flaming projectiles in mid-air. They fell as one to the ground, now no more threatening than a Popsicle. A moment later, a swath of cotton candy, all the colors of the rainbow landed on the ground in front of the bats. They dove toward it, teeth bared for the bite.

Before his eyes, the cotton candy grew and grew until it reached the size of a car. The bats landed in the mass of sweetness, gorging themselves on mounds of sugar. Once they had eaten their fill, however, they tried to fly away and found themselves completely stuck in the layers of sweet cotton. Using their flames, they tried to burn themselves free, but this only melted the candy, trapping themselves ever tighter in a sweet sludge.

At last, the entire mass of candy melted into a mound of sticky goo, sprinkled with writhing, twitching bats.

When Matt finally managed to tear his eyes from the scene, he glanced around to see who had managed such a crazy rescue. He did not have to look long. Behind him, advancing quickly, were Bahati and Neil, relief in their eyes.

Neil reached him first and slapped his back. “Matt, I’m so sorry. I stepped into this tent because it smelled like nachos, but really, it was this hypnotist show and then…”

“…to make a long and embarrassing story short,” said Bahati, “When I finally dragged him out of the…uh, nacho tent, a flaming kumquat nearly knocked off my hat. That’s when I knew we it had to be one of two things: a cocktail dragon or a flaming fruit bat. I was actually hoping for the dragon.”

“Maybe you could tell us what happened,” said Neil. “I thought this was a carnival, not a zoo.”

Matt told him about playing the carnival game, of how he’d only made it to 19, and of the fiery, fruity bat chase. “Then you know the rest. That was a pretty sweet trick with the cotton candy. Maybe you could show me that sometime.”

Neil wrinkled his nose. “Yeah, but I don’t think I’ll ever eat it again. Tyson would probably think it was cool, though, having little bat wings in his cotton candy. I’m glad you weren’t strong enough to get the lion, dragon or bear.”

With a half-hearted chuckle, Matt dropped himself back onto the grass. “Isn’t that from the Wizard of Oz?”

Bahati knelt and examined the large burn on the back of Matt’s leg. “Goodness. What manner of fruit did that to you? A watermelon?”

“No, a cantaloupe.”

Bahati ran her staff over the red, blistering patch of skin and spoke in a low voice. “As you have witnessed, my magical expertise lies in ice magic. I can do other kinds, but I found that in the climate where I live that ice is the most useful.”

Matt saw a faint mist form over the burn and settle onto his skin. The blisters and the red color faded, and he sighed in relief.

“My magic also has many healing applications,” said Bahati. “Your wound will still take some time to fully heal, but at least, for now, the pain should subside.”

They waited a few minutes before Matt was ready to stand, but when he did, he almost fell down again. “Look! Up there.” He gestured with a pointer finger to a space in the sky over the carnival. During the excitement, the sun had sunk below the horizon, leaving the first stars to make their entrance onto the heavenly stage.

Directly above the midway games, centered on the “Hammer of Hercules” hovered a brilliant disk of light. Vivid yellow and white sparks floated down from its center, settling on the ground and flickering out. The disc lay far out of reach of even the tallest ladder and just barely over the number 50 with its brimming treasure chest.

Feeling sick, Matt clutched his chest and stared at the dirt.

“What’s wrong Matt?” asked Neil. “That’s it. That has to be our exit!”

Matt nodded. “Yes, but I bet there’s only one way to reach it.” He stood and gazed at the flashing sign. “We’ve got to win that game.”

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