My family is a sideshow. A lot of kids say that, but I mean it.
I live with Mom, and so do Polly and Gran. Polly is Gran’s dog. She likes to wear clothes. If we don’t put clothes on Polly, she climbs into the washing and wriggles into our clothes. Even Gran’s undies!
Gran forgets things—not little things like where she put her glasses, but big things like my name—or taking the undies off the dog before she takes her out for a walk.
Mom is the strangest of all. One day she sold our house, bought a caravan, painted “The Great Burkes” and happy sunflowers across the side of it, and signed us up to travel with the fair.
It happened this way. Mom saw in her cards that her one true love would visit our small town and signal a time to change our lives. It’s hard to argue with Mom—she can read the future. She uses big cards with pictures of princes, swords, rivers, and bright suns on them. Each card means something different to Mom. When she says our lives are going to change, she’s usually right. When I first saw the card that represented Mom’s one true love, I told her that it couldn’t be right. The card showed a woman with long brown hair and a big sunny smile. Mom just said that sometimes the world had unusual plans for people.
Then the fair came to town, and Alice arrived with it. She had long brown hair and a big sunny smile. She also had happy blue eyes and a sparkly red skirt. I knew she was the one. I pointed her out to Mom, and sure enough, Alice and Mom fell in love.
So Alice joined our family, and we joined the fair.
Like I said, my family is a sideshow. That was an unusual plan. And I wasn’t sure I liked it.
“We can’t live in a caravan,” I told Mom. “Gran can’t even find the house sometimes! How is she going to find something that moves?”
Mom just laughed and patted my head. “It will all work out fine, Nathan,” she said. “And now we have Alice in our family to help us with Gran and Polly.” Off we went to the fairground to join the fair.
I should’ve been happy. All kids like fairs. Fairs are fun. You can eat candy floss, play games, go on rides, and buy stuff.
I didn’t have time for any of that. I had to help Mom. We parked our caravan and set up our tent with her card-reading table at the back.
My job was to collect the money and sell lucky charms. Alice did Reiki, a healthy kind of massage, in the tent next door.
Mom put a teapot and cups on another table at the front for Gran to serve tea and tell futures in the tea leaves left in the bottom of cups. Polly’s job was to wear a sparkling collar and sit on the arm of Gran’s chair looking mysterious. She had the easiest job. It’s easy to look mysterious when you have big bulgy brown eyes.
Telling futures is a family thing. Gran can do it. Mom can do it. She said I would be able to do it too one day because I’d known Alice instantly. I hoped I couldn’t tell the future, because I had an overpowering feeling that our first day at the fair would be a disaster.
Then our first customer came in. Her clothes were made from leftovers of other clothes sewn together, mostly old jeans. Even her bag was made from a kid’s T-shirt and overalls with bits of lace sewn all over it.
“Are you real fortune tellers?” she asked me.
“Oh yes,” I said.
She waggled a finger in my face. “I’ve heard about fortune tellers who take your money and just make up stories. I want a real fortune for my money.”
“It’s a family curse,” I said sadly. The woman looked pleased.
Mom rolled her eyes at me. “Come sit down, madam,” she said to the woman. Then she looked at me and winked. “Mind the shop, young Great Burke.” She led the woman to her table.
It all seemed to be going smoothly, so I ducked next door. Alice took me to get the largest stick of candy floss ever. It was enormous. If you work in the fair, the other fair workers like to give you extra. I started to think this fair thing might work out after all.
By the time I got back, pink candy floss in hand, Gran had found a customer too. A tall man sat at her table.
“So good of you to come,” she said. “I haven’t seen you in ages.”
The man laughed. “We’ve never met before.”
Gran poured him a cup of tea and then stood up. Polly jumped down off her chair arm.
“I’ll get the cookies,” Gran said.
“We don’t need cookies,” I said quickly.
“Don’t be silly. We can’t have guests without cookies. Where has the kitchen gone?” Gran started to wander away.
I grabbed her. I’m supposed to try to remind her of things when she gets forgetful. “We sold it, remember? Now you read tea leaves at the fair.”
“Stop being silly, Fred. This is his first visit, and he certainly won’t call again if we don’t have any cookies.”
“I’m Nathan,” I said.
“I’m Fred,” the man at the table said.
Gran turned around and frowned at him. “One of us is, and it certainly isn’t me,” she said huffily.
Suddenly the woman at Mom’s table screamed. She jumped up and pointed down at her T-shirt bag. The bag jerked and bounced as if it were alive. We all gasped.
The bag flopped over the floor toward the woman, spitting out pens and paper. End over end , it got closer and closer to her. “You’ve conjured up a ghost!” she screamed and backed into the side of the tent.
“We don’t do ghosts!” Mom said.
Then Polly’s head popped out a sleeve. Polly looked up at us with big round eyes.
“The dog is stealing my wallet! You’re all phonies!” the woman cried. “Call the police!”
“No!” Mom said. “She just likes clothes!”
Polly took off, tripped over the bag, and took off again. The T-shirt bag was stuck around her neck.
“Catch her!” Mom cried.
I dived for Polly and missed. I slid under Gran’s table, my face squashed hard into the candy floss. Gran’s table tipped, and teacups rained down on Gran’s customer. I crawled out beside Fred who was brushing tea off his pants. The candy floss was stuck to my face. I plucked at it and looked around.
“Gran’s missing too!” I said. My bad feeling about our first day was coming true.
I called out to Alice to help and ran out of the tent and into the bustle of the fair, dodging between the people, searching.
“Stop them! They’re getting away!” Mom’s customer yelled, grabbing Mom. If I stayed to help Mom, Polly and Gran might disappear forever. I ran on, weaving between the people and picking at the clumps of candy floss on my face. Then I heard a whine.
Gran stood there holding the T-shirt bag. Polly’s head hung out one end.
Gran laughed when she saw me. “I almost went out with the dog in my undies again!”
“I’m so glad I’ve found you. We have to take that bag back to Mom’s customer. She’s going to start screaming for the police!”
Gran looked puzzled. “Do I know you?”
“It’s me, Nathan.”
“Don’t be silly. Nathan doesn’t have a beard. And pink? My goodness, young people today!”
“It’s not a beard. It’s candy floss. Go on, bite me.”
A passing policeman stopped. “Don’t speak to your grandmother like that, young man,” he said.
I shook my head. “But I didn’t mean ‘bite me.’ I meant: taste the candy floss on my face.”
The policeman frowned. “You’re a mess. You should be ashamed of yourself. Your grandmother’s probably gone to a lot of trouble to bring you to the fair. Why don’t you go get cleaned up?”
“Yes, Nathan. Go clean yourself up,” Gran agreed.
“But, Gran,” I said, “we have to take the bag back to Mom’s customer.”
“You heard your gran. She asked you to go get cleaned up,” the policeman said, sternly.
I didn’t have time to explain. I had to get the bag back to Mom before her customer had her arrested for theft.
“I’ll take the dog!” I said. I grabbed Polly in the T-shirt bag from Gran and ran.
“A man with a pink beard has stolen my undies!” Gran shouted.
“Come back!” the policeman yelled.
I’ll get Mom and Alice to come back for Gran, I thought. I ran back toward our tent. A hand appeared out of the crowd and grabbed me. It was the lady in stitched-together clothes.
“Gotcha!” she cried.
I held up Polly in the T-shirt bag. “I was bringing it back.”
“Sure you were,” she said in a sarcastic voice.
Mom appeared beside her. “Of course he was!”
“You can’t argue with Mom,” I pointed out. “She can tell the future. Remember our family curse?”
Alice ran up. “No harm done!” she called cheerfully.
The woman frowned at her. “I’ll be the judge of that!”
The policeman and Gran arrived.
“Thank goodness you’re here, officer!” the woman cried. “These fortune tellers are running a bag snatching operation!”
Even I hadn’t imagined things could be this bad. “No, we’re not!” I said. “She just has a bag that looks like dog clothes.”
“It’s just a misunderstanding, officer,” Mom added. “The dog likes to steal clothes, not bags.”
“And she has no fashion sense,” Alice added, screwing up her nose at the silly woman’s silly bag.
The policeman looked from me to Mom’s customer.
Gran said, “Well, they don’t look like bag snatchers to me. They look like very nice people.”
“She’s in on it!” the woman cried, pointing at Gran. Then she snatched the T-shirt bag from me and tipped Polly out on the ground.
“Those are mine!” Gran said. Then she whispered to the policeman, “The dog’s always wearing my undies out in public.”
Mom’s customer pulled her wallet out of the T-shirt bag and held it up in front of the policeman. “Mine!” she cried.
The policeman scratched his head. “Can anyone explain what happened?”
“They lured me into their tent with promises of fortune telling and then had their dog make off with my bag!” the woman said.
“That’s not true,” Mom said. “The dog mistook her bag for clothes. She has a thing about wearing clothes. I knew I should’ve dressed her in more than a sparkly collar.”
The policeman shook his head. “These are very serious allegations. And blaming the dog, quite frankly, isn’t a very good excuse.”
Suddenly, a shout went up nearby. “Stop that dog!” Polly tore between our legs wearing a toddler’s pink fairy dress.
“Pink?” Gran cried, her cheeks turned red. “I put the pink ones on this morning!”
A tall fairy ran over from the direction of the fairy stall. “Did you see a dog in a fairy outfit?” she asked, waving a spiky wand angrily.
“Yes,” Mom admitted. “That’s our dog. We’ll pay for the dress. She certainly seems to need one.”
Alice rolled her eyes again. “No fashion sense!”
The policeman dived into the crowd and came back carrying Polly in the fairy outfit. Her big bulgy eyes were dark and sad.
“This is the troublemaker?” he asked.
We all nodded.
“They’ve trained that beast to steal wallets!” Mom’s customer said.
We all looked at the sad little dog, lost in a pink mound of ruffles and sequins.
“Well now, it doesn’t seem to be much of a beast,” the policeman said. He put Polly down and took the woman’s wallet and laid it on the ground beside her. Polly ignored it and pranced about happily, her pink frills bouncing on her back. “I can see there’s nothing for it but to sentence this little dog to…”
“No!” I cried. “Polly can’t help loving weird clothes! If you sentence Polly, you have to sentence her!” I pointed to the woman in stitched-together clothes. She turned red and her mouth dropped open.
The policeman smiled and patted my shoulder. “I sentence this little dog to unfashionable clothes for the rest of her life.”
“What?!” the woman cried, snatching up her wallet and stuffing it back into her T-shirt bag.
The policeman tried to look a little more serious. “Of course, I shall check out the fortune-telling business as well. I’ve always wanted my fortune told.”
The woman huffed, spun on her heel, and stomped away. Mom laughed and led the policeman back to our tent.
I helped Gran fix up her table and get another cup of tea for Fred, who was still waiting. Gran sat down with Polly on the arm of her chair, and said, “So nice to see you again!”
Fred laughed. “It’s always fun to come here,” he said.
Mom was right. It did all work out fine. And I was right too. It was a bit of a disaster for a while. I think I’m getting the hang of this fortune-telling business.