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art by Richard Gagnon

Third Time's a Charm

Melanie Rees is an environmental consultant and spends much of her time playing in wetlands. She has also held jobs playing in dirt, playing with fish, and playing in treetops. When she is not up a tree or stuck in the mud, she writes speculative fiction. Her fiction has appeared in magazines such as Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and Bards and Sages Quarterly. She lives online at flexirees.wordpress.com and in the real world lives in South Australia in a house made of straw.
Brietta ambled between the rows of stalls, keeping her distance from her mother. A ringmaster bellowed over a megaphone, asking people to join in the fun, and carnies bustled between stalls under the watchful eyes of the seagulls squawking a familiar tune. And for some reason the tune did seem familiar.
"We've seen these stalls already," Brietta moaned, lagging behind.
"Don't be silly. We only just arrived."
Brietta looked at her mum. "You sure? It feels like we've been here for hours." For some reason, it felt like she'd been there for days.
"What are you on about? I'm not that boring, am I? Oh look, Brietta!" she cried. "Fairy-floss and Dagwood Dogs." Her mum dragged her by the hand down the alley towards the food stall.
"Mum, stop it," whispered Brietta. "You're embarrassing me."
Alongside them, a group of teenage boys chuckled. Like moths clinging to light, they surrounded a girl about Brietta's age. She looked perfectly suited to the beachside festival. Her blonde hair dangled in wet locks against her bare olive shoulders and she smelled salty and sweet.
"What color fairy-floss do you want, Brietta?" her mum asked.
"Huh?" Brietta turned from the group. "I don't want any."
"You used to love fairy-floss."
"Yeah, when I was a kid," whispered Brietta.
"Nonsense. We'll get one blue and Brietta will have orange to match her hair." Her mum said it so loudly she may as well have shouted it over the megaphone.
"Mum, stop it! You're embarrassing me."
"'Embarrassed?' Don't ever be embarrassed by your looks. Red hair and freckles are endearing."
Brietta wished her freckles would multiply, mesh and make her face look tanned like the girl next to her.
"One blue and one red for the young lady." The vendor handed Brietta her food, and she felt the blood rush to her cheeks turning her into the familiar lobster: a red face to match her red hair.
"Come on, Courtney," said one of the boys to the blonde girl. "This place's lame. Let's find the rides. My shout."
Why couldn't she have her life? Beauty, friends, popularity.
Courtney gave Brietta a lopsided grin. Was that a sympathetic look, or a snide look? Brietta tried to hide behind the towering cone of sugared candy as the group of giggling teenagers departed down an alley. Why did she look so familiar?
"Mum, I'm going to have a look around," said Brietta.
"Don't sulk," said her mum.
"I'm not. I just want to... buy a gift for gran's birthday."
"Oh, that's nice, sweetie. Here." Her mum handed her a fifty-dollar note. "I'll meet you back here in half an hour."
"I guess so." Forlorn, Brietta wandered away. Now she actually had to spend time looking for a present.
She meandered in the direction the teenagers had headed. Slightly faded and fraying at the edges, a row of flags fluttered in the breeze above the trading tables. A group of elderly women bartered merrily with a stall owner, attempting to trade trinkets and relics. Across the way, children laughed and jostled for a view of a three-foot-tall strong man, and a clown handing out red balloons caught Brietta's eye. He smiled with bright red lips. Did she know him?
The explosion of color and sound soon diminished as Brietta found herself in a narrow alley of craft stalls.
Metal tinkled. Alongside Brietta, a woman waved an arm of bangles and rings across her trading table. Brietta wondered how she could wave her hands with so many trinkets and jewels dragging her down. "Necklaces! Bangles! A present to charm anyone."
Lilac and lavender drew Brietta to the stall.
"That smell. My mum must wear it or something."
"Hmmm." The woman blew out an incense stick and offered Brietta a bright red bangle. "This would suit you."
Red? Brietta groaned and looked around. Heavy black velvet covered the back wall of her stall and pinned to it an amulet captured the light. Like an abalone shell, it seemed to radiate every color imaginable.
"How much?" Brietta nodded towards the necklace.
The stallholder looked at the necklace and then at Brietta. "That isn't for you. It's too... powerful."
Her reluctance to sell only made Brietta more determined. "I have money!"
"Ninety dollars..." The woman gazed at her until Brietta couldn't stand it and averted her gaze. "How about... seventy?"
Brietta ran her fingers across the bangle.
"Wait. At a push I can do... fifty."
Brietta glanced up.
"It is worth far more than that, but for you I can make an exception. It looks like you could do with a pick me up... a makeover," said the woman.
"Fifty seems a bit much. Sure it's pretty but..."
"Ahhh, but it can give you the life you dreamed of."
Laughter erupted in the alleyway. The teenagers had gathered around a stall and the boys were showering the blonde girl with gifts.
Still in her hands, Brietta tried to cover the bright fairy-floss from view and leaned in close to the stallholder. "How?"
"Kiss the amulet and place it at the feet of a body of your choosing."
"Then what?"
"Then their life will be yours. Their body. Their friends. Their money. Their life. Their looks."
Brietta pushed a bang of hair from her eyes and glanced at the blonde girl. "Won't my mum miss me?"
"Souls will switch. There will be no recollection of the change. Your mum will think it is a teenage ailment. Typical mood swing." The woman unpinned the amulet and placed it in Brietta's free hand. "Why the concern, anyway?"
Brietta shrugged. "It just looks like any old necklace."
"Here's an unbeatable deal. If it doesn't work, I'll give you your money back."
Brietta looked at the orange fairy-floss and the amulet and then handed over the money.
"Nice doing business with you."
Skeptical but excited, Brietta kissed the amulet and walked up to the group of teenagers. She felt their gaze, focusing on her freckles and hair. She strode purposefully and collided with the girl. "Sorry, I wasn't watching where I was going." She rushed off feeling her face flush red. Soon, hopefully, it wouldn't matter. Her skin would never flush. She'd never be mistaken for a lobster again. She glanced back. The amulet rested by the girl's feet and shone bright. Colors blurred and light, there was so much light. It filled the alleyway until she could see and hear nothing.
"Courtney, hello," a voice whispered.
"Huh?" Courtney looked around. The alleyway was quiet except for her regular entourage of followers, suffocating her. "Can we go now?"
"Don't be silly," said Mark. "We haven't been on any of the rides yet."
"And I saw an arm bracelet you'd like," said Jacob touching her bicep.
She flinched internally. Was he mocking her? She folded her arms trying to conceal her flabby skin. "I can afford it myself."
"Mum!"
Courtney turned at the sound of a girl shouting. The teenager ran up to her mum and gave her a hug. She offered her mum fairy-floss, chatted and laughed. Why did she look so familiar? The girl swept her flaming hair to one side revealing a petite button nose. Courtney couldn't help notice that Mark was staring at the girl's arse. Courtney tried to suck in her own without any success.
She stared at her feet, avoiding the prying gaze of the boys. If she looked at the ground long enough maybe she'd become one with it. That's when she saw it. It glinted in the light like a rainbow. She bent down and bumped heads with an old woman adorned in jewelry.
"Oh!" exclaimed Courtney. "Is that yours?"
The woman smiled, picked up the necklace and walked away.
"I'll be back in a moment," Courtney said to her boys. She followed the woman to a stall full of trinkets including the necklace she'd placed on the trading table.
"That's nice."
The woman grinned.
"Have I met you before?" asked Courtney. The stall seemed so familiar.
The stallholder looked at the red-headed beauty with her mother, she looked at a young woman pushing a pram and a clown handing out balloons.
"No, I don't believe we have met." She held up the amulet. "Now for you, I believe I can give you everything you dreamed of for a bargain... two hundred dollars."
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

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