Naruto burst out the door like a flood battering down the walls of a dam. He skipped every step on the porch, deciding to leap right off it onto the concrete. His cousin rushed out after him, red hair swinging, yelling something about it not being her fault if he got himself killed, but he wasn’t listening.
The second Karin had told him he could leave, Naruto had raced for the door. He could feel the edges of summer curling up, growing shorter. It made him want to move even faster, pedal as quickly as he could, away from responsibilities. His bike hit his legs as he pulled it up from where it had been abandoned in the grass the night before.
It was painted orange, like most of the shirts he wore, and Karin told him it made him look like a big stupid goldfish, but he thought it wasn’t so bad. Sakura had told him when he stood in front of the horizon right before dusk, he blended right into the sunset, and Naruto had liked that description a lot.
He pushed off and started riding, down the short driveway and then onto the empty street. It was late morning, but the little ocean town was sleepy anyway, still stretching its arms over its head. Naruto, on the other hand, felt nothing but uncontrollable energy.
Something Iruka always told Naruto after his teachers said he was “hyperactive” in parent meetings was: energy is potential. If that was the case, Naruto had potential for days, for years. They might as well just let him into any college he wants right this instant.
It ached, working his legs this hard, up and down with the pedals, but he couldn’t bare to go any slower. When he smiled into the wind, it tasted like salt. It stung his eyes, and he blinked it away. Iruka would never let him go this fast, but Iruka wasn’t here. The town was his track, and he was the youngest race car driver the world had ever seen.
Naruto was 13 years old, and while he didn’t see himself as king of world quite yet, he had the feeling he might be, someday. He came up upon a hill, and let it take him. If he was going any faster, he thought, he’d be catching fire. Just like rockets do, shooting from Earth to the moon...
In reality, he was only going a couple blocks, to Sakura’s house. Iruka hadn’t wanted to let him go visit his cousin and her mother on the coast, even just for one week. First, because he thought Naruto might get hurt; a very valid concern. The second was that he might not find any friends his age. Oceanview wasn’t as cruel of an environment as Iruka had worried. Naruto wasn’t sure if Sakura was a friend yet, but she was sweet like cotton candy and had hair the same color. Naruto thought about her a lot.
It was her friends that they would hang out with, so Naruto had to find Sakura first. He came to screeching halt in front of her house, nestled in ferns. There were 3 wind chimes hanging from the roof above the porch, clinking harmlessly. On the sidewalk there were two bikes already, a black and purple mess of spokes, so Naruto dumped his on top.
When he knocked on the front door, quickly, five times, Sakura answered. She was wearing basketball shorts and a big tie dye shirt. The sun broke through a cloud and she squinted.
“What time is it?” Naruto shook his head. He had no idea.
“You said we could go to the carnival today,” he said, jumping from one foot to the other. “My aunt gave me money and everything, so I can get tickets!”
Sakura jumped back and forth a little, too. “Okay! I can go, I just have to get Ino up and she’s always grumpy. Do you want to come in and wait at the table?”
Naruto stepped on the heel of one shoe to take it off, the way Iruka always told him would ruin them. He walked quietly into the kitchen, one mismatched sock in front of another. Sakura left, deeper into the house to wake up her friend Ino. Naruto didn’t like Ino much, but he did like Sakura and her other friends, so he put up with her.
He ran his fingers along the side of the chair he was sitting on. The wicker was bumpy, distracting. Naruto had never been good at waiting, nor was he known for succumbing to boredom. He had been running around Oceanview and Cobalt Beach all week, exploring every where his cousin let him go, as well as some places he wasn’t supposed to, and he wasn’t tired of it at all.
Tonight, of all the nights, was most exciting, because it was his last night before Iruka came to pick him up and take him home, and because he got to go to the carnival. The Oceanview Carnival; he’d seen posters for it all over, but the time he’d spent in Oceanview never overlapped with the event before.
Now, though, it seemed like a momentous occasion, the last big bang before the leaves turned brown and the winter clothes came out of the closet. The feeling of the wicker couldn't contain him anymore, and he tapped his feet erratically.
Finally, Ino walked into the kitchen, barefoot and yawning but otherwise dressed to go out. Naruto jumped up, nearly knocking the chair over, and Ino rolled her eyes. “What are you so excited about? Never been to a carnival before?”
“No,” Naruto said, with a touch of defensiveness, “but on New Years Eve I always watch fireworks from my balcony. It’s 15 floors up.”
“Everyone watches fireworks, dummy.”
“From 15 floors up?” He and Ino stared at each other, grasping for the upperhand in a pointless conversation.
Ino looked away first, turning to check her makeup in the reflection of the microwave door. “I think that’s weird,” she said, which is what she always said when she didn’t know what to say anymore. Naruto had mostly gotten used to it, but he flipped her off while she wasn’t looking anyway.
Sakura hopped in on one foot, pulling her shoes on. “Okay, my mom gave me money, too, but she said we have to eat something healthy.”
“What at the carnival is healthy?” said Ino.
“I heard they sell deep-fried candy bars,” added Naruto.
Sakura smiled slyly. “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. I’m sure funnel cake has some nutritional benefits we don’t know about.” Ino snorted, and Sakura poked her in the stomach, making her friend shriek. Naruto watched them shove each other, but he mostly watched Sakura.
He’d known her for a little less than a week, but she had already shown him much more kindness than any kid in his city. Naruto was going to be an 8th grader soon, top of the middle school heap, but for all anyone else cared, he was dirt. Several school days could slip by at home, blending into one another, like some other worldly being had taken his life under one finger and smudged it. There was nobody at school who could make one day stand out from another. He had known many people, but only liked one; his dad, Iruka.
Now, however, he liked Sakura, too. She had ridden past his cousin’s house on her bike, and saw him sitting there, digging up worms in the front yard. Sakura told him that it didn’t look very fun, and Naruto had told her that he was having plenty of fun, what was she talking about.
“Well,” she huffed, adjusting the red bandana holding her bangs back, “I’m going to chase down the ice cream truck and see if they have any of the cartoon character popsicles with the messed-up gumball faces. Do you want to come?” Naruto shot up, wiped his dirty hands on his shorts and grabbed his bike in 5 seconds flat.
“Karin!” He yelled back at the house. “I’m going to hang out with my friend!”
And that was it. They were off, hunting down the truck, any conversation cutting off abruptly when they thought they heard whimsical music. Pretty much since then Naruto had been invited to whatever Sakura and her friends were doing. Mostly it was riding their bikes to the corner store to buy gum or running around at the beach, but Naruto didn’t really care. He was included.
Outside, Naruto pulled his bike back up, while Sakura tried to untangle the other two. Her bike was purple, with reflectors on the wheels, and Ino’s was black with a basket. Ino took off first, blonde hair swinging, headed for Shikamaru’s house a block down.
Shikamaru was lazy, with a green bike, and his best friend was Choji, a big friendly boy. His bike had the wide wheels, that clunked over curbs but looked so cool. It was a lot of effort to get them out of the house and ready to ride, but Ino could do it, even if Shikamaru grumbled the whole way.
Naruto and Choji had the same type of smile, the one where you close your eyes. His hands were sometimes stained multicolored from fruit-flavored candy, but Naruto could tell that he didn’t like to be teased about it. Only Ino could sometimes get away with it, but her jokes always fell flat because Choji just took it. He never fired anything back, or laughed. He just let the mean things she’d say sit.
Shikamaru was Choji’s best friend and he was super smart but didn’t act like it. Not like some kids who went to Naruto’s school. There was a girl who sat in front of him who would always laugh when the teacher put his test on his desk face down. She’d cover her mouth with her hand, but Naruto could hear it, clear as day.
Shikamaru wasn’t that way at all; he’d much rather lay in the grass, staring up at the sky completely silent. Naruto tried to do this a few days ago but ended up just running to the top of the hill and rolling down it until he rolled over a napping Shikamaru by accident. He was pretty sure he’d been forgiven.
At long last, they were off. The distance to the boardwalk and surrounding area where the carnival took place was farther than just scooting around the neighborhood, but this is where Naruto’s boundless energy came in handy.
He was front of the pack, sun-soaked and crowing. The closer to the ocean they got, the more apparent the salt was in the air. Naruto wanted it to preserve him as this: a young boy with burning money and his friends behind him, with an endless afternoon. A boy with potential.
It was true, what he’d told Ino. He’d never been to a carnival before. Naruto grew up in a little apartment in a big, big city. Trees were few and far between, and the only water that moved outside of a faucet was a huge river that was much too dirty for swimming.
His dad was young and strung out, yet somehow everywhere at once. Iruka would work for hours, he would work extra jobs, he would work his fingers to the bone, but there he was. Naruto’s little league games, every birthday, every graduation of any kind, every… anything Naruto thought was important. Naruto often felt lonely at school, but he was never under any impression that he was truly alone.
All the working for the necessities left out some things, though. Movies in the theater and brand new shoes and dessert every night. Naruto guessed carnivals were some combination of the jam-packed city and his dad’s jam-packed schedule; they just fell by the wayside.
Now, though, he was ready. It was still the middle of the day, and Sakura had promised it would be prettier at night, but even if it wasn’t, it was a whole new world to Naruto.
Flashing colors, reds, blues, greens, were everywhere, uncontrollable. The smells were all the things Naruto craved but Iruka refused to get him: watermelon sugar and fried gold and drinks with bubbles that tickled his nose.
The screech of machines were there, too, with amusement park rides lining the boardwalk. Spinning, twisting, bumping metal, but not industrial like he’d known. It was working parts, lifting the ferris wheel upwards and making the swinging ship swing. Naruto was fascinated.
There was plenty more, things to buy, games to play, but Naruto ran his bike to the splintering guardrail. He’d seen it before, but he didn’t get tired of it; the sea. It felt like some great ceremony, the expense of ocean meeting a man-made marvel. Naruto could hardly contain his excitement. He turned around, grinning at his friends. They smiled back, even Ino.
All they had to do was lock up their bikes, and then there they were; five 13 year olds with scuffed sneakers and a total of 40 dollars. They crowded around the ticket booth as Shikamaru slid the money through the little semi-circle to the old lady running it, who curled her lip. To Naruto, they were five great adventurers, hacking through the jungle, but this woman saw them as five more middle schoolers who’d eat too much candy and get dizzy after rides and hurl everything up.
She gave them back 53 tickets, so everybody got 10 except Naruto who got 13. He’d put in the most money, after all.
“13 is an unlucky number,” Ino reminded him, but Naruto just waved them in her face, telling her she was just jealous. Sakura pulled on his shirt sleeve, pointing to an mechanical arm-wrestling game, and Naruto blushed. She let go, running towards it, but Naruto touched his sleeve where she’d touched before joining the others to run after her.
Sakura spent a ticket on the game, pulling up the sleeve of her t-shirt in preparation. Her elbow hit the pad and everyone cheered, besides Shikamaru who was eyeing a big bench in the sunlight. She won, easily, immediately, and Naruto was the only one who was surprised.
She raised her arms, flexing them. “I’m strong, I’ve been working out.”
“I’ve been working out, too!” said Naruto, even though he hadn’t, unless that included carrying grocery bags from the lobby up to the 15th floor with Iruka.
“Oh yeah? Arm wrestle me, then.”
A new game began, but now the teams were split; Ino backing up Sakura and Choji giving Naruto a slap on the back that was so hard he choked. Shikamaru had found his bench and was taking a nap.
They found a good surface, and locked hands. Sakura stuck out her tongue in concentration, which was cute, but once Ino called go, she was anything but. She instantly slammed Naruto’s hand down, his knuckles scraping against wood.
“Ow! No fair!”
“How was that not fair?”
“I hurt my arm yesterday,” Naruto grumbled, rubbing it, but Sakura just laughed.
“That’s what they all say,” she said, but there was no malice in her voice. She ran off to a new game, following Choji. His favorite was the one where you fish for rubber ducks, and Naruto had never done that, either.
The rest of the day continued in this fashion. Naruto was eager to explore and his friends were eager to show him, pulling him every which way as afternoon made its lethargic descent into evening.
Naruto was sure he’d eaten everything, seen everything, as the sun went down, but the carnival at night was twice what it’d been in the day. The lights had been comparable to the string variety during the day, but at night they were stars, a constellation surrounding every stall. He loved all of it, ate it with happy hunger.
Sakura was leader of the bunch, he had found out, and wasn’t overly excited often, but there was something she saw that made her eyes light up. She pointed, and smiled at Ino, who rolled her eyes. There was a fondness there, too, as she turned to explain.
“Sakura loves slugs. No one knows why, because I think they’re gross as hell, but she likes them. Snails are a close second; she collects snail stuff.” Ino gestured towards what Sakura had seen; a snail doll hanging outside of a stand, the one at the very end of the line. It was tucked way in the back, barely touched by the light, its stars not shining quite as brightly.
Sakura started towards it, then stopped, turning right back around. “What’s wrong?” Naruto asked. “Don’t you want the snail?”
“I do, but…” She put a hand over her eyes, as Ino squinted at the stall and then snickered.
“Oh, it’s him. Sakura used to have a crush on him.”
“Shut up! You did, too.” Sakura pushed her friend, who was still giggling. Naruto turned back to look at the stand, and he hadn’t noticed before, but there was a boy sitting there, perfectly still. There was a slight glow, Naruto guessed from a phone screen. Besides that, he couldn’t make much else out.
“Who is that?”
“Sasuke,” Ino finally got out after Sakura was done pulling her hair. Naruto looked, back at the boy, wide-eyed.
“...Sasuke?” There was something about the way the name sounded, how it felt in his mouth. Like the salt-water taffy they’d chewed before. It was hard to get out fast, it stuck to the roof of his mouth, and it was cinnamon, red. Naruto shook his head, and the second time he mouthed it, it was easy. The thought was gone.
“I’m…” Naruto looked at his tickets. They were dwindling, but there were still a few left, crumpled from his hand and hanging onto to each other. There were enough. “I’m going to go try it.”
Ino looked surprised. “I guess, if you want to. He’s a high school boy.”
That was something Naruto was going to be soon, in a year, but that still meant this guy knew things he didn’t. The tickets were crumpled again. “I don’t care about that. Obviously.”
“Okay, but he got all weird and quiet when he got into high school. All the girls used to like him, because he was… I don’t know, smart and good at sports and stuff. Nobody talks to him now-”
“I’m going to,” Naruto said, cutting Ino off, and started towards the booth. He was going to win that snail and give it to Sakura. His stride was confident, steady, as he marched right up to the booth. The boy, Sasuke, looked up, and then, he faltered.
Naruto hadn’t been able to make out what Sasuke looked like from a distance. He could see now: lithe body, but with bad posture, and dark hair that stuck up wrong in the most effortless way. But, this wasn’t special.
What was special was his eyes. They met Naruto’s and they were black, so black that there was no distinction between the iris and pupil. Naruto had never seen eyes like that before. If his blue ones were the waves on a sunny day, Sasuke’s were the sea beneath an eclipse. No light escaped them.
There wasn’t even an expression on his face when he first looked up, but after Naruto opened his mouth and no words came out, he looked annoyed. “Yes?” he said, low, and Naruto could see a tiny flick of pink as Sasuke’s tongue touched the bottom of his front teeth for the S.
“Uh. I want to play,” he said, cheeks burning. What had come over him? He stuck out his hand, and Sasuke put out his, and Naruto dropped the tickets to where he was waiting.
“It’s ring toss. You know how to play?” Like saying those words were the last thing he wanted to be doing. Naruto swallowed. He guessed he understood what Ino had meant about Sasuke being cool; Naruto wanted to be like that someday, effortless. That was Naruto’s thing, effort, trying. It just made people tease him. He bet Sasuke never gets teased.
“Of course. Duh.” Naruto found the rings in front of him: 10.
“If you get more than 7 over the bottles, you get something.” Back to his phone, not even scrolling or tapping. Naruto, a real human, was less than a rectangle of light. He huffed.
He picked up the first ring. It was faded, not quite the red of blood or Sasuke’s name. Naruto closed his eyes, ready for whatever may come, and then opened them, blue and blue. The ring left his fingers and- bounced off the bottles, clattering to the ground.
Sasuke eyes flicked to him, and then away, but it was enough for Naruto to burn even brighter. He glared at Sasuke’s profile, but he didn’t shift again, the only movement the tiny tick of his eyes under long eyelashes. This was the guy Sakura had liked? Whatever.
The second went much like the first, but Sasuke paid him no more attention. The rest were the same, and Naruto was very annoyed. He swiveled, hands clenched, to face Sasuke.
“I played baseball in little league,” was all he could get out.
“Good for you.”
“No, I’m saying, like, is this game rigged?”
“Yeah,” said Sasuke flatly, and then leaned closer. “You know what, kid? Everything in this whole carnival is fucking rigged.”
Naruto felt his anger spike, at the game and at Sasuke, his stupid sticking-up hair like rocks at the jetty that ships steered clear of. Naruto should steer clear of him, too.
He stomped away, his feet making satisfying thumps. He was going to tell Sakura Sasuke was a dick, and she was better off with someone else, someone like-
Naruto stopped in surprise, turned. Sasuke was standing now, and he must have been the one that called out. His heart beat a little. Effort.
Just like that, Sasuke was cool again. An accessible cool, one Naruto wanted someday for himself.
He all but ran back, looking up at Sasuke, and his pale hands reached up, digging into the soft skin of a stuffed snail. “I saw you looking at it. The game’s rigged, so just take it. I won’t tell.”
Naruto blinked, at Sasuke, at the snail. He took it, and his hands did not touch Sasuke’s.
“Thanks,” he said, quietly. The moment for talking loudly had passed, and Sasuke was back to his phone.
“Sure, kid,” was all he said. Naruto wanted to tell him he wasn’t a kid, probably wasn’t even much younger than Sasuke himself, but when you’re a teenager every year feels like ten. Sasuke had maybe driven a car, or kissed a girl, or smoked. Naruto hugged the snail to his chest, and ran in the opposite direction.
He found his friends again, proudly showed Sakura the snail, which she put under one arm and told him she didn’t know what to name it, but Naruto should give her his number so she can text him it when he goes back home. Naruto glowed.
The next day he was tired, after having gone back to Choji’s and spent the whole night playing video games with guns and cars, something he left out to Iruka when he showed up in their old car. He hugged Naruto very tightly, and Naruto wondered if Iruka did anything while Naruto was away.
After it was clear he had made it through the week without dying, Naruto begged and begged Iruka to let him come back next summer. He begged halfway back to home until finally Iruka agreed. Naruto glowed even brighter.
He remembered them all. Pink-haired Sakura who he texted, mean Ino who he didn’t, Choji and Shikamaru, best friends. He remembered bikes and ice cream and that carnival. Even the boy at the ringtoss stand tugged at the corners of his mind.
Naruto didn’t know why he did, and the memory faded over time, but whenever he saw a dark eyed boy on the subway, it stuck to his mind like saltwater taffy. He thought of Sasuke.