This is not an email address!
Email address is required!
This email is already registered!
"Email" is not a valid hostname!
Password is required!
Enter a valid password!
Please enter 6 or more characters!
Please enter 16 or less characters!
Email or Password is wrong!
When the corn maze at the Castaway Carnival magically transports Olive to an island occupied by warring teens, she'll do whatever it takes to get back home. But victory may require more betrayal, sacrifice, and heartbreak than she's ready for
Jessika Fleck is a writer, unapologetic coffee drinker, and knitter — she sincerely hopes to one day discover a way to do all three at once. Until then, she continues collecting vintage typewriters and hourglasses, dreaming of an Ireland getaway, and convincing her husband they NEED more kittens. She loves writing novels for young adults and her work verges on fantastical and dark with a touch of realism. She is also a regular contributor to the fantastic kidlit blog, The Kidliterati. Jessika has lived all over the U.S. from Hawaii to Vermont, but currently calls Illinois home. She lives there with her sociology professor husband and two daughters where she’s learning to appreciate the beauty in cornfields and terrifyingly large cicadas.
I used to have a smile. A real smile. All teeth. All cheeks. The kind that makes your eyes go squinty and pinches your nose.
But I lost it.
I’ve tried finding it—really I have—but it always comes off fake and forced, or, as my mom reminds me, like I’m in pain.
I blame my name.
My smile disappeared slowly, over time, like the old Jackson farmhouse in the field east of downtown.
God knows how long the place had been there. The fence was nothing but broken posts poking out of overgrown weeds. The once jolly red paint on the house had peeled and chipped away, leaving only rotting wood.
It had started with kids daring each other to go in and steal old doorknobs, broken dishes, and other unidentifiable, rusted treasures. Then the windows went—a fun Friday night in Hillings was a drinking game of throwing rocks at the glass: you miss, you drink.
The thick front door disappeared. Next, the shutters went missing, along with much of the interior, forcing one side of the roof to collapse in on itself. Before long, the place was gutted—its joy snatched away plank by plank during the night. What was once someone’s home had become a moldy, decomposing shell. Then it was bulldozed to dust. Gone. Nothing to show for its existence except an empty, weedy, weedy field littered with soda cans and chip bags. Now it’s a super-market attached to a mega church with a Subway sandwich shop in the lobby.
That’s how it happened with me. First, they picked and prodded, threw stones, and pulled at my hair. Then, piece by piece, they stole it—my smile, my joy. Now I’m being bulldozed.
All because of a name: Olive Gagmuehler. A smelly food plus the word “gag,” which quickly morphed into Olive McGaggy for funsies.
My middle name is Maxi. Once they got wind of this information, I was all variations of Maxi Pad from grades six through eight.
They’re family names. I know—I should feel honored. But couldn’t I have paid tribute to my great grandmothers in some other way? One that didn’t predetermine my social fate?
Olive Maxi Gagmuehler.
Thank you, Mom and Dad.
A Norman Rockwell Moment
It’s forty-five minutes before school, and my brother, my dad, and I sit at the breakfast table eating overcooked waffles that are basically large crackers. The sun casts a spotlight through the window, so I’m forced to squint across at my brother through the blur of my eyelashes.
“O-live! Stop hogging the syrup!”
My little brother’s going through a growth spurt. At least, that’s how Mom justifies his constant need for food.
“Jeez. Chill, buddy. Here, it’s all yours.” I push the syrup across the table. Lucky grins at the bottle, gazing at me through the amber glass, one eye scrunched shut. The weirdo then proceeds to pop the lid, dump the thing upside-down, and drown his waffle. Taking a heaping, sticky bite, he stops mid-chew, examining me with suspicious eyes.
“Hey, where’s your black sweater? You’re supposed to wear it today!” Damn it. Cute as he is, the eight-year-old sneak notices everything. It’s spirit week. Today is “black sweater day.” Something about “black out the Wrens.” “You know I don’t get into that stuff.”
He snorts. “Well, I would.”
“Then you can when you’re in high school. But today, I’m wearing my white sweater.” What he doesn’t know is that my black sweater was stained with mustard when they tried to squirt it in my eyes.
“You know Olive’s a rebel, Luke. She’s not at all about the status quo,” Dad cuts in, trying to relate to my “angsty teenage ways.” I roll my eyes. He winks. I smile back.
Mom peeks her head in from behind the pantry door. “Where is your black sweater?” Great. Double interrogation. “I haven’t seen it in a while.”
“I-I must have left it at school in my gym locker.”
“I’m sorry. I forgot to grab it, but—”
“Oh! Wait—” Lucky jumps up, runs past Mom and straight to the hook where we keep our backpacks, furiously digging into his. He comes running back, waving a flier in his hand. Mouth still half full of slimy, syrupy waffle, he mumbles, spewing crumbs, “Look!” and thrusts the paper in my face. Then, pulling off his shoe and dumping whatever lives in there into his hand, he reveals a gold coin. “I also got this! It’s a doom-bloom.”
I hold my hand out and he tosses it in. “It’s doubloon, weirdo. Pirate money.”
“Yeah! Well, yesterday, we had assembly, and the carnival pirate guy said I could use it to get into the ship or the maze! Can we go? Pleeease?”
Mom, coffee cup in hand, joins us to investigate. “What’s all this?”
Phew. If the sneak was good at anything, it was diversion. Black sweater forgotten. For now.
I tear a piece of waffle off with my fingers and dip it in syrup, staring down at the flier. “The frickin’ Castaway Carnival.” I nearly choke.
“Olive…” Mom motions to Lucky like he’s never heard such vulgar language.
Dad snorts behind his mug.
“What?” I lower my voice. “That place is a death trap.”
The Castaway Carnival is held one weekend a year and is known for its over-the-top pirate themes and world record-holding corn maze where children disappear. Last year, it was a nine-year-old boy. But he wasn’t the first. Back in the sixties, when the carnival had first opened, two high-school boys also went missing. The same way. Vanished.
She gives me her evil eye, tucking a piece of dark, short hair behind her ear. “We promised him,” she sing-songs. “Besides, there’s a logical explanation for where those kids went. They just haven’t found them yet.” But the worry lines between her eyes say otherwise.
“Yeah… Death trap,” I sing-song back. She takes my plate away. I pull Hazel, our ten-year-old cat, up onto my lap and let her lick syrup drips off the table. Mom groans. She hates it because it ruins any hope she has of a Norman Rockwell moment.
“Can we go, Olive? Can we?” Lucky is literally licking his plate clean. Mom groans again. “You pro-missss-ed,” he begs, stretching the word out as far as possible.
Yes, I had. Months ago. I’d needed his last piece of gum before school. Total desperation move. I breathe in, then release a long exhale before I answer. “All right.” I hand the paper back to him. “When’s the big day?”
I stare at my parents.
They stare back.
The three of us know they’re working late.
I sigh. “Fine. I guess I can take you by myself. It’ll be a first for both of us.”
“Yes!” Lucky makes a fist, yanks his elbow in, then flings himself away from the table.
The coin, still in my hand—and heavier than a piece of junk like it should be—has a skull and crossbones embossed into it, and the word CASTAWAY along the top. I hold it up between my thumb and forefinger. “Forgetting something?”
Lucky stops in his tracks, pivots on his heels, and faces me.
He holds out his hands, smiling, all teeth.
I toss the coin back to him. “For the pirate ship, not the maze.” No way will Lucky be the next kid lost to the Castaway Carnival.